Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Thanksgiving Synagogue Service

While Thanksgiving is most certainly an American festival of gratitude, its founders prominently articulated its religious underpinnings, which ultimately find their source in Judaism. Two well-known Manhattan synagogues actually created and held Thanksgiving ceremonies which took place on Thanksgiving morning, adding a decidedly religious tone to a day that, today, is usually associated with hefty eating, football and shopping.

On Thursday, November 21, 1940, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun featured a “Thanksgiving Service” at 11:00am in its sanctuary. The service weaved a tapestry of liturgical music, American patriotism and speeches. After the choir and cantor led Ma Tovu, the congregation rose as the colors were presented to the synagogue’s president, who then read President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. Charles Poletti, Lieutenant Governor of the State of the New York delivered a Thanksgiving Address to the assembled and the synagogue’s rabbi, Joseph H. Lookstein, offered a “Thanksgiving Prayer.” Rabbi Lookstein’s prayer offered gratitude to God for the Creation, for man’s dignity and wisdom and for all of humankind to thrive. The final paragraph addressed the host nation: “We pray sincerely for America and the ideals of democracy and freedom that are here enshrined. May she be strong to withstand all the currents that assail her and all the forces of evil that would invade her sacred precincts. A tower of light to her own citizenry, may she cast a steady beam and light up all the dark areas of the world and show to a perplexed and straying humanity the path of freedom, of life and of peace.”

Five years later, a “Service for Thanksgiving Day” took place at Congregation Shearith Israel. This service included a standard prayer for the U.S. government, and included a greater sampling of psalms, including verses from the psalms known as “Hallel” and the “Psalm of Praise” (Psalm 100).

Whether one’s Thanksgiving includes Jewish liturgy or not, showing gratitude for our bounty is a message all can appreciate. Judaism, etymologically related to Biblical Judah, denotes gratitude, and has taught thanksgiving to humanity for millennia.

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