WASHINGTON – The annual National Prayer Breakfast will be co-chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman, the first time in memory that a Jew will lead the gathering, and at a time when some rabbis have expressed misgivings about what they see as the event's overtly Christian tone.
The breakfast is staged without government funding every year by the Fellowship Foundation, an evangelical Christian group. Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush have attended, along with members of Congress and world leaders. This year, King Abdullah II of Jordan will give the keynote speech at a lunch following the breakfast, which is scheduled for Thursday.
Although the breakfast has historically been a Christian event, Jews have had more of a presence in recent years, including a speech by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., an orthodox Jew.
"To the extent that Senator Coleman's co-chairing signifies a more inclusive approach, I think that's a positive development," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "Whether it represents a shift in tone remains to be seen when the event occurs."
Conservatives from different religions have made common cause in recent years of issues such as gay marriage, abortion and public funding of faith-based programs. However, theological differences, like the ones at issue at the prayer breakfast, remain.
Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, raised some eyebrows himself at last year's breakfast when he said, "I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus."
A New Jersey rabbi in attendance, Shmuel Goldin, was taken aback by that, and by registration material that said "Jesus Christ transcends all religions." He wrote to Coleman to express his concerns.
Last spring, Coleman met with Goldin and agreed to make changes for this year's breakfast, according to both men. Also attending that meeting were Coleman's co-chairman, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Fellowship Foundation leader Douglas Coe.
"He raised some concerns that I, as a Jew, was sensitive to," Coleman said in a telephone interview. "He was concerned about proselytizing literature; we're going to try to make sure that that isn't the case."
Goldin said he asked why there were so many references to Jesus if the breakfast were truly nondenominational. "That was one area we couldn't come to terms on," said Goldin, an orthodox rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J.
"At a nondenominational event, there should be a recognition that different religions worship differently and believe differently," said Goldin, who is on sabbatical in Jerusalem this year. "And the assumption that everyone benefits from being under the spirit of Jesus really runs counter to this concept of diversity."
The foundation declined to make Coe available for an interview. In 2002, Coe told the Los Angeles Times: "Religion is divisive. The ideas of Jesus are cohesive."
Foundation officials referred questions to former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who conceded that phrases such as "spirit of Jesus" could be offensive to Jews but noted the significance of Coleman's role this year.
"It makes a statement that this is an event for Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists," said Slattery, who has worked with the foundation on the breakfast.
Some prominent Jews don't see it that way.
"The prayer breakfast is judenrein — the German word for Jewish-free — it's not the neighborhood we're accustomed to visiting," said Rabbi Kurt Stone, author of a collection of biographies of Jewish members of Congress. Stone said he was uncomfortable with Coleman's references to Jesus in last year's speech.
Coleman had referred to Jesus while discussing the weekly Senate prayer breakfast meetings that he also co-chairs. He called the comments "an honest reflection of the fact that for many of my colleagues in that weekly prayer breakfast, there is a lot of focus on Christ."
"What I've gotten out of that is a respect for my colleagues' belief," Coleman said. "On the other hand, when I have a chance to give a prayer, I give the Hebrew blessing. And I think my colleagues appreciate that."
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, said non-Christians would feel comfortable attending the breakfast if it were more ecumenical.
"On the other hand, I don't know of anyone who has been forced to attend this event," he said. "Freedom of religion means freedom of religion for everybody. So, as long as I can express my faith freely, I can't really find a problem with other people doing the same."