A prominent cohort of American Jews were at the White House yesterday for President Obama’s Jewish Heritage celebration—and the L.A. contingent was well represented by some of the city’s most accomplished Jews, including Rabbis David Wolpe and Sharon Brous, Jumpstart co-founder Shawn Landres, J-Dub records CEO Aaron Bisman, Challah for Hunger founder Eli Winkelman and Lou Cove, the executive director of Reboot.
Much has been made of this inaugural event given its timing (Obama’s Jewish approval rating is at its lowest ever) and the growing perception that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is imperiled. But really, L.A. attendees report, it was just fun.
Landres praised the White House for bringing together a diverse group representing both the past and future of Jewish life in America.
“The best part of being there was being with producers of contemporary Jewish American heritage,” Landres said. He was referring, of course, to many of his fellow Angelenos—including Brous, Bisman and Winkelman and their relatively young contributions to American Jewish life. “Ten years ago none of this existed,” he said of IKAR, J-Dub Records and Challah for Hunger. “That the White House recognized that is a testimony to their accomplishments and a recognition that Jewish life in America is not only about that past, it’s also about the future.”
For Brous, it was President Obama’s address that made an impression. “What moved me was when he said something about how Jews who have experienced a history replete with tragedy and oppression have responded to life not with cynicism, despair and indifference, but with a positive and a firm commitment to building a better future for the Jewish people and for all people.”
Brous interpreted Obama’s message as praise for the Jewish imperative to respond to injustice with moral obligation. “He said that the Jewish people have pioneered extraordinary advances in art, medicine, science and business, but that the most extraordinary thing about the American Jewish contribution is not those things, but the way the Jewish people have this dedication to opening the eyes of the world to injustice, and engaging in the struggle for human dignity, and how that’s not only shaped the ethos of the Jewish community but has had a profound affect on the ethos of America as a nation.”
Wolpe limned his thoughts on the event for the Huffington Post:
The White House continues its campaign to sell both the genuineness of its sympathy with Israel and its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclearization of Iran. This was the ‘soft sell’; reminding us of the President’s deep ties to Jews and the Jewish community.
The reception brought together an impressively wide array of personalities. In addition to the usual farrago of Rabbis and Jewish leaders and professionals, there were Washington insiders like David Brooks, Nina Totenberg, Roger Cohen, Diane Sawyer, Carl Bernstein and government officials like David Axelrod and Peter Orszag, a group of Senators and congressmen (including the easily spotted Al Franken.) Supreme court justices—and Elena Kagan, the nominee—added to the august feel of leather bound books on the shelves and Presidential seals on everything from the carpet to the paper hand towels. Several non-Jews active in politics and supportive of Israel, including the Director of research for the Southern Baptist convention, Barrett Duke, were present; and of course, Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren. To reinforce the connection of the administration with Israel, the President made a point to remind us that Rahm Emanuel was in Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of his son.
[Obama’s] words were brief and focused on the Jewish struggle through history which has turned us to a more compassionate people, and an extraordinarily accomplished one. He spoke of the symbiosis between America and the Jews. And in the line the assembly was waiting for, the President reinforced the unbreakable bond between America and Israel.
A reception will not change anyone’s mind. The undeniable grace and charm of the President and First Lady will not either. The divides on policy are deep. But for a moment, the politics of the event slipped away; the people in the room represented the range of political views, left to right. For most there was the enduring wonder of the instant: as Alysa Stanton, America’s first female, African-American Rabbi read Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and singer Regina Spektor performed, there endured the miraculous reality of Jewish Americans gathering in the White House. Together this group represented a stunning range of achievement and a fair return for America’s deep blessing of freedom.
...From literature to music to the pitcher’s mound, you cannot tell the story of America without telling the story of our people. On the steps of the White House we spoke about the museum near Constitution Hall. At the fraught founding of this great nation, who knew that when the cracked bell first tolled, it was playing our song?
Read JTA’s report on the White House reception here.