Rabbi struck by Clintons heartfelt tone

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WASHINGTON — Rabbi David Saperstein had a front seat — literally — for the latest of President Bill Clinton's apologies for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The occasion was Clinton's annual interdenominational prayer breakfast on Friday of last week.

Saperstein, who has known the Clintons for a dozen years, sat in the front row, alongside First Lady Hillary Clinton and just behind the president.

It was easy for Saperstein to see Clinton reading from "seven or eight pieces" of handwritten notes torn from a pad and marked by words crossed out and corrected throughout.

"I was really struck by the heartfelt power of his words," said Saperstein, a leading Washington liberal head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center. "He was speaking from the heart as somebody who for a long time had sought to escape the consequences of his failures and now came to terms with the fact he wasn't going to do that."

Saperstein also could not help but look at Hillary Clinton. "She was deeply moved when he spoke. There were tears toward the end of his remarks. My heart went out to her…

"I think it's a tough experience for everyone. We're all disappointed by the president's failures, but at the same time he remains a very popular figure to Jews in the U.S."

Saperstein is on sabbatical in Israel this year, where he is writing several books on the Jewish view of social justice. He flew in for the event marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, and when he arrived in town found himself invited to the White House breakfast as well.

Saperstein said he has attended three other Clinton prayer breakfasts. A man comfortable with religion and given to citing the Bible, Clinton, a Baptist, usually makes the occasion a dialogue on the religious aspects of public policy issues.

This was unmistakably different, said Saperstein. "Yet, at the same time, it was a genuine effort to probe the religious component of the crisis he was facing. I think there was a profound sense of sadness and concern for the nation, for the people hurt by his behavior."

Near the end of the meeting, Clinton read aloud from the Reform High Holy Days prayer book.

"To hear a president of the U.S., at the White House, at a meeting of religious leaders of all faiths, find words of comfort from the Yom Kippur liturgy and express so clearly the universal meaning of those words — that was an extraordinary symbol of this president, [of] his affinity for the Jewish people and ideas, and of America," Saperstein said.