Several years ago, I took my children on a tour of the White House. As we walked through the grand halls of the White House, we were able to peek into the Red Room, the Blue Room, and the Green Room to admire the original 19th century furniture from behind the plush ropes. We walked through the formal dining room, with its magnificent portrait of President Lincoln, on a narrow path where the carpets were rolled up. Like any other museum tour, my family appreciated the opportunity to view the history and witness the stateliness and splendor of the center of American power.
This year, on May 30, I had the privilege of attending a reception at the White House in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month. This time, there were no ropes to block access to the rooms. The carpets were not rolled up. The 300 Jewish guests were able sit on every original 19th century chair and couch, to dine on an elaborate buffet of kosher food in the formal dining room, to take pictures in front of every presidential portrait, and to visit briefly with the President of the United States of America.
As I strolled leisurely through the Red Room, sat on the gilded chairs in the Blue Room, and sipped wine by the fireplace in the Green Room, I felt a remarkable sense of “at-homeness.” I was filled with a sense of awe and gratitude for the wonder of living in a generation in which the Jewish People are recognized as a distinct, proud, dignified people with a unique history, culture and faith, while at the same time being completely at home, welcomed, valued, and cherished as important contributing members of the American nation.
The challenge of Jewish Peoplehood in America today is the challenge of embracing the honor of Jewish American Heritage Month. How can we celebrate our unique obligations and responsibilities to our particular family, the Jewish People, when we can simultaneously be at home with the Presidential family in the White House?
To me, this challenge is also an unspeakable blessing. I can only imagine how Jewish history might have been different if the Jewish People were celebrated and honored in this way at the White House 70 years ago. In an era in which we are most “at home” in America, we also have the most freedom to choose Jewish life and perpetuate Jewish values. We can choose rich and full and distinctive Jewish lives filled with learning, faith, community, and acts of loving kindness. We can choose to participate in public discourse and public service guided by our Jewish ideals. We can choose to support and defend the State of Israel as loyal American citizens. Most of all, we can choose to accept the invitation to be at home at the center of American power as a distinctive and distinguished People.
Rabbi Lauren Berkun also visited the White House in 2011. Click here to read her first account.