JMN President Invited to the White House

You can imagine my excitement at receiving the invitation to the White House’s first-ever Jewish American Heritage Month Celebration. I have passed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue several times since moving to Washington, D.C. in January 2009, but never have I been inside. Who’d have thought that being Jewish would get me in the door.

The trip to the White House was most likely facilitated by Patrick Gaspard, who is President Obama’s Director of the Office of Political Affairs. Patrick and I previously worked for Ruth Messinger when she was Manhattan Borough President. My Haitian-American friend’s wife has a Jewish mother and an African-American father. Perhaps he was sympathetic to the cause.

The Jewish-American Heritage Month Celebration officially began when the President greeted us.

Mr. Obama continued his remarks. “This is a pretty fancy… pretty distinguished group,” he said of the invited guests, which included members of the House and Senate, two justices of the Supreme Court, Olympic athletes, entrepreneurs and Rabbinical scholars. “Even before we were a nation, we were a sanctuary for Jews seeking to live without the specter of violence or exile,” said Mr. Obama citing “a band of 23 Jewish refugees to a place called New Amsterdam more than 350 years ago.”

Following the applause at the close of his remarks, the President invited Rabbi Alysa Stanton to the podium. Rabbi Stanton, the first Black female rabbi and former JMN board member, treated the audience to a stirring recitation of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, The New Colossus. Russian-Jewish immigrant and recording star, Regina Spektor treated the gathering to two songs.

Although Rabbi Stanton and I have exchange emails, we have not overlapped at past JMN retreats. After introducing myself to her and her daughter, Shana, they were delighted to hear of our shared connection.

Prior to the formal program, I struck up conversations with other locals: Seth Goldman of HonestTea and his wife, Julie Farkas. They are members of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, the same shul over which Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, the husband of JMN Board member Minna Scherlinder Morse, presides. A friend from Los Angeles, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, the congregation JMN Board member Marissa Tiamfook belongs to, flew in for the reception. Fellow White House visitors included Aaron Bisman of JDub Records, Lou Cove of REBOOT, Joshua Neuman of HEEB Magazine, Allison Hoffman of Tablet Magazine. I even shook hands with author Judy Blume.

Many other guests like Sarah Najjar-Wilson from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Hilary Shelton, Director, NAACP Washington Bureau / Vice President for Advocacy were invited for their interfaith work.

Few had heard of the Jewish Multiracial Network. Explaining that we are a project of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center helped jar some memories. Once people heard my schpiel, many expressed interest.

Regardless of being under the radar of many Jews, having representation at the White House event was important to our organization and to the families and individuals who make up our community. Hopefully increased and active involvement in the JMN website, listserv, and business cards will help break JMN out of our relative obscurity in the coming months.

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