Four leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community were among about 200 people who met President Barack Obama during a White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
“To be inside the home of the locus of power of our country and for Western democracy is a pretty extraordinary thing,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, leader of Temple Beth Am. “And it’s no small thing that a lot of people at this event are the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of refugees who came to America on the promise of freedom and possibility of equality.”
Temple Beth Am member Michele Wolf was also present. Wolf, a Jewish Journal blogger, helped create HaMercaz, a clearinghouse for resources for families with special-needs children. Sally Weber, director of Jewish community and special-needs programs for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles also attended, along with Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, who is the immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
“Everyone in the room turned into eighth-grade kids when President Obama walked in, jockeying for position and snapping pictures,” said Kligfeld, who shook the president’s hand. “He carries a burden that is unfathomable to me, and to be that close to someone who carries such responsibility really brought out a sense of awe.”
Kligfeld said one his colleagues recited the blessing one says upon seeing a person of power, thanking God for endowing humans with the ability to lead.
Guests were treated to a light fare of salads, pastries and fruit, along with wine and plenty of seltzer (or maybe it was sparkling mineral water?), all under kosher supervision. The Marine Corps strings band played HaTikvah, and the Maccabeats, Yeshiva University’s a cappella group, sang both for the group and in a private audience with the president.
Also present were author Elie Wiesel; Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University; Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbis Eric Yoffie and Richard Jacobs, outgoing and incoming presidents, respectively, of the Union for Reform Judaism; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Jewish members of Congress, and rabbis, academics, philanthropists and Jewish professionals from a broad cross section of Jewish life.
The president kept his remarks short, according to Kligfeld, acknowledging the contributions Jews have made to American society, and reaffirming his commitment to Israel.
In a briefing before the reception, leaders had a chance to meet the incoming ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and a member of Obama’s economic team, who discussed some of the ethical considerations of budgeting, such as caring for elders.
Eger said Shapiro talked about military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries, and affirmed the administration’s commitment to continuing bilateral negotiations in the Middle East.
“I still think there are some in the Jewish community who question President Obama’s commitment to Israel, and I have to say I have no question about the president’s commitment after hearing this briefing today,” Eger said.
This was Eger’s second handshake with the president. The rabbi delivered the invocation at USC when Obama spoke there last November. But, she said, she was humbled by the opportunity to walk into the White House not on tour, but with an invitation.
“To have Jewish American life and Jewish American contributions to the United States celebrated in the people’s house this way, it still a pretty unique thing,” she said.
In 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed the month of May to be a celebration of the more-than 350 years of Jewish contributions to culture in the United States.
Kligfeld said he was moved by the surge of awe and excitement the physical proximity inspired, in a way that a digital image can’t.
“That is something I will take back, in terms of how to help people feel that surge of excitement and anticipation of being in the presence of something extraordinary. That is what synagogue life should be, and it’s not always that way,” Kligfeld said, noting that the object of adoration in the synagogue should be not a person, but the tradition and the texts.
“I think everyone in that room felt it, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to recreate that on some level in our synagogue worship.”