Jewish American Heritage Month reception

Missouri State Rep. Stacey Newman represents the state’s 73rd District, encompassing Clayton and Richmond Heights.

BY REP. STACEY NEWMAN

Last month I received an invitation via email through my legislative office that I wasn’t sure at first was real. However, after calling the number listed, I was assured it was legitimate. I was overjoyed. I was invited to the White House for the annual Jewish American Heritage Month reception.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., first urged Congress in 2006 to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to America and the American culture. Their proclamation which passed unanimously in both houses of Congress was signed by President George W. Bush and encourages the celebration on a national level.

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However it was not until 2010 that President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the first White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, serving as an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the range and depth of Jewish American heritage and contributions to American culture. Guests at the now annual event have represented the many walks of life that have helped weave the fabric of American history, including a range of community leaders and prominent Jewish Americans from Olympians and professional athletes to members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, rabbinical scholars, military veterans, astronauts and entrepreneurs.

With great excitement, I was most honored to accept the invitation for May 30th to represent the Missouri State Legislature with my husband Burt as my official guest. As we lined up outside the southeast entrance to the White House we were joined by Jewish Americans from everywhere. It took just minutes talking with those in line to play “Jewish geography” — connecting via our congregations and rabbis. Burt and I stood with couples including a prominent national Obama fundraiser from Chicago and a rabbinical professor from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati who asked if we knew Rabbi Susan Talve and Rabbi Mark Shook. “Of course!” we answered.

Progressing through the various necessary security checkpoints, we were struck by the magnitude and relevance of observing Jewish American heritage. All 300 of us on the security roster were instantly “family” with each of our family stories and histories in mind as we entered the most famous house in the United States. Burt remarked as a first generation American, what his father, a Holocaust survivor, might have thought of our invitation to such a momentous celebration.

Once inside the East Wing of the White House, we were greeted by Rock Shalom, an a capella group from the University of Maryland singing Yiddish tunes. However the packed reception room of several Jewish members of Congress and state legislatures, rabbis and congregational leaders from throughout the country were there to hear President Obama who spoke to us recalling the struggle against anti-Semitism in the U.S. 

During his speech at the reception, President Obama focused in large part on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s order in 1862 to expel Jews “as a class” from the military department of Tennessee. American Jews protested and with the help of President Abraham Lincoln, the order was revoked. 

President Obama said, “It was wrong, even if it was 1862. Even if official acts of anti-semitism were common around the world, it was wrong. But what happened next could have only taken place in America. “ 

“To General Grant’s credit he later realized he had made a serious mistake,” the President said in his remarks. “So later in his life he apologized for this order and as president went out of his way to appoint Jews to public office and to condemn the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe.”

“Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream. But this country holds a special promise: that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and in the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right; our union can be made more perfect and our world can be repaired,” Obama said. In a year when the Jewish vote takes on a new importance, Obama reflected that it’s his generation’s turn to “stand up for our shared values.”

A military band played Jewish melodies after the President’s remarks as we enjoyed the Glatt Kosher elegant appetizers and desserts and toured the East Wing.

For the third consecutive year, special items from the Library of Congress’ Jewish American collections were on display during the reception including a letter to Lincoln from the Missouri Lodge of “Bné B’rith” based in St. Louis, the first Jewish organization to formally protest Gen. Grant’s order; Lincoln’s note rescinding the order; and a receipt for President Grant’s contribution to Washington Synagogue Adas Israel, the first synagogue building built in DC. 

After viewing many famous portraits of presidents and first ladies and making new friends, including a young Jewish Naval officer assigned to the White House Social Secretary’s office, it was regretfully time to leave.

The historical significance of celebrating Jewish American heritage in the White House will stay with me always as will President Obama’s concluding remarks, “It’s no secret that we’ve got a lot of work to do. But as your traditions teach us, while we are not obligated to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from that work.”

As a Jew, I remain inspired.