NCJWSTL’s Ellen Alper’s ‘Excellent Adventure’ celebrating the Jewish New Year at the White House

Ellen+Alper+at+the+White+House.

Ellen Alper at the White House.

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN , EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Many jobs have their perks. But going to the White House to celebrate the Jewish New Year with the President, First Lady, Vice President and Second Gentleman of the United States? That’s pretty much a doozie of a perk.

The White House is exactly where Ellen Alper, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis, found herself on Friday, Sept. 30, after being invited to attend the first celebration of this kind held there. She joined about 200 others at the two-hour celebration, which also included both Jewish Democrat and Republican legislators from around the country as well as dignitaries from all branches of Judaism.

“It definitely was one of the highlights of my career, no doubt about it,” said Alper, who has been at the helm of NCJWSTL for 18 years. “It really was for me about the difference that NCJW can make in the world — that people seek us out, they want our opinion, and they want to work with us and collaborate with us. It makes you so proud to do the work that you do every day.”

Alper explained that a couple of hours before the event, she had to take a COVID test at the White House COVID testing site. She was told that if she got a call in 20 minutes, the Secret Service would be taking her name off the guest list.

ADVERTISEMENT
Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, please don’t let my phone ring,’” she said. “Of course, an hour later, my phone rings and it’s a 202 number (D.C. area code). But it was some survey research company, thank goodness.”

Around 11 a.m., she joined the other invitees who were lined up around the block to get into the White House. Most had come from the Northeast or D.C.-area; Alper was among a handful who actually flew in specifically to attend the event.

Once inside, Alper said they were taken to the East Room, where First Lady Jill Biden, President Joe Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff addressed the crowd.

“The Second Gentleman told stories about going to his grandmas for the holiday and how she burns the brisket,” Alper recalled. “Typical stories, and just as an aside, because you had to be a certain age to understand this one, he talked about going into his grandma’s house and her telling the kids not to jump on the couches because she took off the clear plastic slipcovers for the occasion.”

Then came a surprise announcement from the President that violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman would be playing live as the group left the East Room and were ushered to the first floor of the White House.

“He played ‘Aveinu Malkeinu,’” said Alper, adding that she recorded his performance. “People just spontaneously broke out singing while he was playing. It was so moving and amazing.”

The food, said Alper, was all kosher and included brisket, sushi and numerous other yummy dishes. She said Biden and Emhoff stuck around for a while, taking pictures with the group and chatting.

Alper had actually met the Second Gentleman online during the summer, when she and 12 others joined a Zoom he facilitated following the landmark Dobbs decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe vs. Wade. She wondered if that was the reason she was invited to the White House celebration, though NCJW had turned in a list of potential names. Including Alper, four members of NCJW were in attendance.

“It was a real honor for NCJW to be there,” said Alper. “It was a real honor for the President to do this because when he was vice president he would host (something similar) at the Naval Observatory every year. But when he became President, he couldn’t host it because of COVID. That’s what made this so special because this was the first one since the pandemic and the first time ever in person for a Jewish New Year celebration at the White House.”

When asked what continues to resonate the most after the event, Alper said, “How important the relationship to the Jewish community is to the White House. That they want to hear from us, they want to hear our opinions. They want to know what we are doing out in the field and what issues we are facing, especially with regards to antisemitism. So, it’s that and the other piece for me personally is how well respected NCJW nationally is as we move in those circles.”