Over the years I have had many opportunities to attend meetings and gatherings at the White House. As an American Jew, I have always treasured these moments and in fact treat them as a responsibility. If the White House asks me to attend, I work extraordinarily hard to be present. I believe that we all have an obligation to support our local and national government. This was inculcated in me from my parents who were both politically involved for many years. I especially feel passionate about supporting the United States of America given its support of Jews and Israel.
As we are in the midst of Jewish and American Heritage Month, the White House hosted a celebratory party. Shelley Greenspan, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, did a phenomenal job of filling the room with a cross section of the Jewish Americans. There was entertainment, speeches and glatt kosher food prepared by a celebrity chef. Stars from the Broadway show “Parade,” the story of the prosecution and lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank, who was falsely accused because he was a Jew, were on hand to perform from the show. Jeopardy host Mayim Bialik was in attendance and I felt obligated to take a picture with her for my mother-in-law who is a lifelong Jeopardy fan!
President Biden spoke and, frankly, he said all the right things. He has established a committee to fight antisemitism and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff is leading that effort. I was blessed to be seated in exactly the right spot so immediately after the President finished his remarks, I was first to shake his hand and thank him for his support for our community and Israel. After the formal program, a few of us convened a minyan for mincha (afternoon prayers) as my good friend, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, had to say kaddish. After we socialized for a while, I couldn’t help but begin to feel uneasy.
As grateful as I am for everyone taking antisemitism so seriously, I wonder: Have we become nothing more than victims? The hate and vitriol that is hurled at the Jews and Israel is constant. Should that define who we are? Do we really see ourselves playing defense on a constant basis or is there more to us that perhaps the world is not appreciating. I was left a bit unnerved with many questions floating around in my head. Many times when a person thinks about the spiritual destiny of our people, the Almighty sends us some possible answers. We just have to teach ourselves to hear His response.
On the train back from Washington I was seated in the Amtrak quiet car. I do that sometimes as it forces me to refrain from phone calls and use the time to think. I started to look through different social media feeds to see what was going on in the world when I saw the most amazing story. Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, Rabbi of the Gush Etzion Regional Council in Israel, author of over 20 books and one of the most dynamic rabbinic personalities in the world, was seated on a flight back to Israel. He noticed that there were signs everywhere saying “Congratulations Noa.” He turned to the young woman next to him and asked innocently, “Do you know who this Noa is and what she has done?” The young woman with a big smile said, “I am Noa!” As it turned out, 22 year old Noa Kirel had just placed third in the Eurovision Song Contest representing Israel and was very famous.
Noa was not at all upset that the Rabbi didn’t know who she was. She was moved when speaking with him. She told him that her grandfather was a rabbi and a sofer (scribe). Noa was excited to share with the Rabbi that she had said the morning blessings on the day of the Eurovision competition and had not turned on her phone on the Shabbat before. She then asked the Rabbi for a selfie and exchanged numbers so she could be in touch on spiritual matters. I thought to myself: this is really who we are as a people. An international pop star finding meaning from a rabbi on a plane and sharing with him her spiritual ancestry and growth.
The next day I attended a conference sponsored by my close friends Louis and Manette Mayberg through their family foundation. In an effort to create passionate and inspirational day schools, they founded the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC).Headed by Managing Director Sharon Freundel and Founding Director Rabbi Shmuel Feld, this movement has led to enhanced innovation in bringing more spirituality to the classroom. This year, a hot topic was whether day schools should do away with grades for Judaic Studies, concerned that grades may limit a student’s potential for spiritual growth. My favorite moment was when Rabbi Feld mentioned that in our 3300 year history, we have only had grades for the last 100 years and yet we thrived!
The highlight of the conference was a speech given by Manette. I have come to know Manette well over the last eight years. She is one of the most spiritual Jews I know and is laser focused on creating a pathway for our children to grow closer to the Almighty. In her talk, she spoke of the importance of educating the next generation of Jews about the benefit of their heritage. She spoke about Rav Noach Weinberg’s “Five Levels of Pleasure” and the need to educate others as to the greatness of being a Jew. She emphasized beautifully that we must teach our children what they are living for.
Indeed this is the secret to Judaism. The Almighty has given us the tools to live a purpose- driven life. A life filled with joy and happiness. A life filled with influence and productivity. A life filled with laughter and friendship. We will not be defined by those that want to hurt us. I am so thankful to our allies in the fight against Jew hate. Yet we must never forget how amazing it is to be a Jew. We have a mission to elevate the world around us. We have a mission to live and love. We have a mission to make the world a better place. Let us strive to let the world know how great it is to be a Jew.