Michelle: The email invitation came on Friday, May 6th while I was at the pool for Danny’s weekly swim lesson. As I watched him laughing and kicking around with his long-time swim instructor, I read over the text a few times. It read: ”Attached is an invitation from President and Mrs. Obama for Jewish American Heritage Month. We hope you will be able to attend the event.” And then I opened the attachment with a Presidential seal on top. Sally Weber and I, co-founders of HaMercaz, the one-stop program funded by The LA Jewish Federation for Jewish families raising a child with special needs, were actually being invited to the White House on May 17th, to celebrate the “generations of Jewish Americans who have helped form the fabric of American history, culture and society.”
Luckily, I was going to be on the East Coast anyway, to see my daughter perform in an off-off Broadway show, so it wasn’t too big of a hassle to book an Amtrack train from New York to DC and change the return flight home.
When I told Danny, my 16-year-old with CP and other developmental disabilities that I was going to stay an extra night on the east coast to see the President he got very upset. I asked him what I should talk to President Obama about if I had the chance. He replied, “Shuki” the name of our cat. I told him the President family’s had a dog, not a cat in the White House. The next day, I again asked the same question. Danny replied quickly:” Get a cat!”
On May17th at 1:45 pm, under drizzling skies, we gathered at the southeast entrance to the White House, going through our first security check, making sure our names were on the list and our photo ID matched our name (we had given our social security numbers ahead of time to the Social Secretary), and then to the X-ray/security tent before entering the east wing of the White House. A Marine in dress whites greeted us, “Welcome to the White House.” I had to keep remembering I wasn’t on a back lot at Universal Studios.
In the Ladies Room, everyone was primping, reminding me of a Prom Night. I thought I would look like a tourist snapping away photos, but everyone else had the same idea—35 mm cameras, cellphone cameras, and video cameras. There weren’t any restrictions on what we could photograph so we all took pictures of everything—chandeliers, vases, and views, even the kosher food menu.
As the male a cappella group, The Maccabeats from Yeshiva University performed, the crowd of around 200 surged toward the gold rope that had been set up in front of the stage. William Daroff, the head of the Jewish Federation’s of North America DC office had warned me ahead of time that to have a chance of actually shaking the President’s hand, you needed to be right up against the rope.
Although some tall people did get in the way of a perfect sightline to the stage, I could nevertheless see President Obama walk over to the podium very well (good thing he’s tall) and the excitement in the air was like the opening of a U2 concert. As it turned out, I was close enough to shake the President’s hand (twice) and ask him Danny’s question. “Mr. President,” I said, starting to feel very silly, “my son wants to know if you will get a cat in the White House?”
A half smile appeared. “I’m not really a cat guy.” he said. In retrospect, I should have asked, “Are you a post 67-borders kind of guy?” but it was two days before the big speech.
My White House adventure began with an excited call from Michelle: “Did you get the White House invitation? Can you go??” Hadn’t a clue what she was referring to. And I was about to Skype with my grandchildren in Houston (we DO have priorities, after all!) By Sunday, it all became clear: my invitation had been emailed to Michelle along with hers, we were indeed invited to the White House. And all priorities changed! I was able to invite my husband, Malcolm, as well—we scurried for reservations (ended up on separate flights because of the late notice) and I proceeded to bounce off the walls for the next seven days.
Our visit started with a very special opportunity as we joined long time friends Janet and Rep. Henry Waxman at the Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony that Capitol Rotunda, an event honoring Elie Wiesel and keynoted by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Henry was also one of six Congresspeople who escorted camp survivors as they participated in candle lighting ceremony. We entered the Rotunda through the Hall of Statues, flanked by military personnel in full dress, each holding a flag representing the U.S. Army battalions that had liberated concentration camps. The US Army Band played a moving medley of Jewish music that echoed through the great Rotunda. For me, the most moving moment was after the event—when Henry joined the survivor he hosted, a very elderly woman who refused to use her walker and instead walked elegantly on Henry’s arm to the candlelighting, flanked by her children, grandchildren, and I suspect great-grandchildren for a family portrait of this powerful moment.
From there to the Senate Dining Room for lunch, then to the White House. Dayenu! But our day had just begun. The reception was held in the East Wing, where the entire second floor was open for our celebration. Following the Maccabeats’ performance (I’ll be the coolest grandmother in Houston when I send my kids the photo of me posing with them..or is it them posing with me?), with no pomp and circumstance, came President Obama. He commented on the privilege of meeting briefly with the Maccabeats and actually having them sing him a short song—which went something like ‘Four more years, four more years!’ The group laughed in appreciation.
The event was on live feed—my daughter said that the second he walked in, all you could see were cell phones and cameras in the air. Guilty as charged! A few minutes, a handshake (strong, lots of eye contact) and an autograph later, we were off to the party. Kosher food and Hatikvah at the White House—who could imagine? As mentioned, all the rooms were open to us—who knows who sat on the chairs that Malcolm, Michelle, Rabbi Denise Eger, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld and I sat on that afternoon!
We were a widely diverse group—academics, rabbis, members of social service organizations, Democratic Party activists, authors and artists. Almost universally, two degrees of separation at most. The 200 people gathered shared a similar thread of conversation: How did you happen to be invited? Names and emails were exchanged, new networks established. The adrenaline rush continues!
OK, the universal question from everyone: What are you going to wear? Bottom line, we all looked great. And as a friend said to me, ‘Well, whatever you wear, the Obamas haven’t seen it yet. Just don’t wear the same thing the next time’. Next time..from her mouth to God’s ears!!