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An Evening at the White House

Friday, December 09, 2011
An op-ed by Ezra Friedlander

Last night at The White House, politics came to stand still for one brief, shining moment as a cross section of Jews from across the United States came to celebrate Chanukah and perhaps more than just that. I decided to share with the Hamodia readership the extraordinary feeling of inclusion as I entered the South West gates of the White House.

Indeed for those of us who appreciate history, entering the White House to the singing of traditional Chanukah melodies is an acknowledgment of how far our community has come from the dark days of the Holocaust when our Rabbis were not allowed anywhere near the interior of the White House to plead on behalf of our forefathers who were being killed by the millions. To those of you who know to what I am referring to, you what I am talking about. To those that don't know, it is important for you to find out.

Those were the emotions that accompanied me as the Secret Service waved me through and we entered the White House......if only then, if only then...............

Yes, symbolism is important--in many ways that is the message of Chanukah when we display our symbols for the world to see!

There are many ways to be a host and many ways to be a guest. Thursday night at the White House I saw an extraordinary display of unity......a night bereft of politics, partisanship, or division. Jews of all stripes, Republicans, Democrats and Independents and indeed of all levels of observance, all gathered together to acknowledge that we are all Jews who are grateful to these United States for the privilege of practicing our religion.

Yes, indeed, that was what the evening represented. A White House that hosted an evening Glatt Kosher L'mehadrin is a testament and a strong statement that we, the Jewish people, can observe unhindered, but even more so--we can contribute to our Nation without conflicts.

So it wasn't just the opportunity to eat on White House china and utensils kashered under the supervision of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Executive VP of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, DC, whose emphasis on Pas Yisroel and Chasidiha shichtia indicated that the cuisine was permitted, but it is sending us a message that we can prosper in these United States and conduct ourselves in the same fashion as individuals whose observance is the centrality of our lives.

So when President Obama welcomed us to the White House, I sensed not only the aura of being regaled but the awesome responsibility that comes along with it. Perhaps my appreciation of history caused my emotions to overtake my. Either way, I was standing in line to greet the President of the United States--a man whose decisions effect mankind can cause one to feel in awe.


What I did not expect was what the Military Social Aide asked my wife and I, as we were approaching the receiving line: "are you shomer nigiah?" explaining that if so our photo takings would be handshaking with the President and First Lady respectively. To be honest, I did not expect this level of courtesy. This level of detail reflected something very unusual but very positive: that we as Orthodox Jews have not only the right to be fully observant but indeed are obligated to do so.

The President and First Lady could not have been more gracious or welcoming. In the few seconds that we all got to share private time with the President, we had the opportunity to tell him whatever was on our mind. I thought long and hard about what to say, realizing that it is extremely difficult and perhaps inappropriate to address a particular issue or advocate for something in particular. Having discussed this with my father, the Liska Rov Shlita, I decided to convey a brocha for "divine inspiration as he leads our Nation and is confronted with decisions that impact humanity". The President was introspective, he listened to me and then thanked me and asked me "where I'm from" and wished me a Happy Holiday.

Upon taking leave of the President we returned upstairs to the State Dining Room mingling with the guests. Vice President Biden was also the gracious host that greeted everyone warmly and spent an inordinate amount of time making everyone feeling "literallyā€¯ at home. We had many opportunities to schmooze that night. In light of my conscience telling me that I too have a responsibility to use this opportunity to advocate for a pressing issue, I decided to respectfully mention Jonathan Pollard. I excused myself saying this is perhaps not the venue but I just wanted to remember him tonight. To be respectful of the Vice President's agreeing to talk with me, I will only say that I walked away with a positive feeling. Again, I want to stress to the readership that I was conflicted on whether to raise the issue and the reason that put it over the top is the knowledge that officials keep track of conversations and the pulse of the community and an event that included a cross section of our community's leadership should include mentioning of his name which I thought is an obligation upon me and perhaps even allowed within the spirit of addressing our nation's leadership with what is on our minds.

All in all, it was a sobering experience that imparted an important lesson to me: be proud of who you are and try to be a better Jew. It demonstrated that Jarrod Bernstein, the White House Director of Jewish Outreach 'gets it' and knows how to advocate for the community---a very burdening task to represent the President of the United States. In 1944, we didn't have a President who initiated his remarks with acknowledging his director of Jewish Outreach; in 2011 we have the President of the United States acknowledging Jarrod Bernstein as the new director of Jewish Outreach at the White House.

Though the world stood still for me while in the White House, I am under no allusions that the overwhelming challenges facing our community and the world still very much exist. But as someone who would consider himself a student of history, this was an evening of reflection and not just an opportunity to eat Glatt Kosher lamb chops in the East Room of the White House. For others it might have meant something else, but for me it was an evening to thank the President of the United States for recognizing our Jewish heritage and for that we have to be eternally grateful.

Ezra Friedlander, is CEO of The Friedlander Group a NYC and Washington DC, based public affairs consulting group which is now spearheading the effort to award Raoul Wallenberg with a Congressional Gold Medal in light of his upcoming centennial in 2012, recognizing his heroism in saving over 100,000 Jews in the waning days of the Holocaust.
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