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Celebrating Jewish Americans
A distinctly Jewish flavor wafted through the White House on Tuesday as several hundred guests gathered for the second annual Jewish American Heritage Month reception.
Despite the timing of Tuesday's event, just a few days before the president's major speech on the Middle East, his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, there was little talk of politics.
The president himself made no references to Israel or the Middle East in his brief address to the group, instead focusing on the contributions of Jews to America and the world.
"This month is a chance for Americans of every faith to appreciate the contributions of the Jewish people throughout our history -- often in the face of unspeakable discrimination and adversity," he said.
"For hundreds of years, Jewish Americans have fought heroically in battle and inspired us to pursue peace. They've built our cities, cured our sick. They've paved the way in the sciences and the law, in our politics and in the arts. They remain our leaders, our teachers, our neighbors and our friends.
"Not bad for a band of believers who have been tested from the moment that they came together and professed their faith. The Jewish people have always persevered. And that's why today is about celebrating the people in this room, the thousands who came before, the generations who will shape the future of our country and the future of the world."
Jewish American Heritage Month dates back to 2005, when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida Democrat recently named to head the Democratic National Committee, and then Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) urged President George Bush to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to America and the American culture.
The resolutions were passed unanimously, first in the United States House of Representatives in December 2005 and later in the United States Senate in February 2006.
While Bush marked the month during his presidency, Obama last year hosted the first formal gathering to mark the occasion.
Among the attendees were the usual suspects -- members of Congress like Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Wasserman Schultz. The president, in his remarks, mentioned the presence of Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer; Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren; and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace laureate who just two days earlier received the inaugural award from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But it also brought together those whose paths would rarely cross -- leaders of national organizations like Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the new head of the Reform movement, and Philadelphia's own Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, whose national position with the Chabad movement has brought him a seat at many White House Jewish events.
There's little mystery why the Jewish Exponent's executive editor was invited: Some strategists advising the White House no doubt consulted the map to survey key swing states with significant Jewish populations that the president will need to target for his 2012 re-election bid.
There was something surreal as the guests schmoozed, snapping photos of each other beneath the portraits of presidents past as guests spread out around the East Wing section of the White House known as the State Floor.
The warm-up entertainment featured the Maccabeats, a merry band of Yeshiva University students whose "Candlelight" YouTube video went viral during Chanukah.
Clearly someone at the White House is paying attention to what's cool in the Jewish world.
A Jewish gestalt permeated the two-hour affair as a small Marine Corps band played Jewish tunes, a full kosher spread was offered and perhaps the most incongruous sight of all -- a station with a large, silver urn and containers for the observance of the pre-meal handwashing ritual.
One woman departing the event remarked that she wished her parents, who came to this country as refugees from Europe, could have seen such a sight.