My recent visit to the White House was a moving experience, and not simply because it was the White House, though one has to be pretty cynical not to be moved by that alone. I was there with a group of about 150 others, including Hall-of-Famer, Sandy Koufax, who were invited by President and Mrs. Obama to join them in the first-ever White House celebration of Jewish American Heritage month.
Walking down the iconic glass hallway that runs along the Rose Garden, passing photos including those of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signing the peace accords between Israel and Egypt, was exciting. And it was made more so by the fact that we were there to celebrate a specific vision of Jewishness, one that is open, inclusive, fearless, proud of its particularity, and committed to the human race.
After the usual hour of conversation among the guests, including David Axelrod gently admonishing me for not wearing a maroon University of Chicago tie (he, the President, and I are all student or faculty alumni), who shared drinks and were offered a lovely buffet of strictly kosher snacks, we were ushered into the room where we were greeted by the President.
President Obama spoke of the contributions of Jewish Americans, offering special recognition to Sandy Koufax who was sitting in the front row. In fact, the famous left-hander got as big a round of applause as the President did when he was introduced!
Mr. Obama spoke of a people who, for more than 350 years, have journeyed from almost unspeakable adversity to almost incomprehensible achievement and levels of contribution to America. He spoke to us — a group of artists, athletes, academics, rabbinic scholars (his term) and community leaders, and shared a vision of Jewish life in which we saw not only what we had accomplished but how much we could still continue to achieve, if still animated by that kind of striving not only for ourselves, but for all people, if worried not about disappearing, but about the opportunities which we will miss if caught up in such fears.
Perhaps the most moving part was that in looking around the room, it was easy to imagine that we will rise to that challenge. In fact, the guest list alone reflected a vision of Jewish community, of who is “in” and who “counts,” that was worth the trip. This was not simply a gathering of the usual suspects, representative of the major political advocacy, self-defense, and philanthropic and denominational “heads of state.”
Some of them were there, as well they should have been. But this group looked more like the real picture of Jewish America. It was more diverse, ideologically, theologically, politically, racially, and in about every other possible way. It looked more like who we Jewish Americans really are and it was a special honor to be a part of that mosaic (pun entirely intended).
Jewish pride is a powerful and often beautiful thing. In the midst of celebrating it, I believe the President was asking us to think about what it is that makes us proud and how we can mobilize that pride to do more than make ourselves feel good about the past and the present.
We were certainly there to celebrate both, but implicit in the celebration was also a challenge – how a people’s pride can also help them build the future. To do that, we need to ask ourselves about the relationship between pride in who we are and pride in what we accomplish. Does pride in who we are help us to achieve great things, and if so for whom? Does the Jewish Heritage we were at the White House to celebrate spur us to new levels of achievement and provide tools to help us get there?
These are questions that make sure pride is not simply spruced up ethnocentrism, but a genuine sense of mission fueled by a real awareness of the great tradition which can make its achievement possible.
As far as Sandy Koufax goes, I can tell you what I said to him when we finally got a chance to chat at the end of program. I asked him what it felt like to be both a Hall-of-Famer and one of the most important rabbis of the 20th century. He looked at me a little funny and said, “Believe me, I’m no rabbi.”
I explained that there was probably no person who empowered a certain generation of Jews, especially young men and boys, to claim their Jewishness with pride, confidence and joy, and if that isn’t being a great rabbi, I didn’t know what was. His eyes welled up with tears and he said, “Thank you rabbi for putting me in your club”. At that point, a young man in Army Dress Blues told us that we needed to clear the room, so we did.
Yesterday was a special day for me personally, and has the potential to be transformative for the Jewish community, if we take it and the President’s message to heart.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.”