On May 17, 2011, I was honored to participate in the Jewish American Heritage Month reception at the White House. As a rabbi and faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America’s community leadership programs, I came to this event with two educational themes in my mind. First, I approached this experience with the Hartman Institute’s upcoming summer conference theme of “Jewish Peoplehood” as a guiding lens. Secondly, I framed my experience based on a year of teaching the Hartman Institute’s new “ Engaging Israel ” curriculum to leaders and educators in South Florida and Toronto.
After receiving the invitation to the White House, I immediately reflected on the explicit and powerful recognition of Jewish Peoplehood by the government of the United States of America. The very fact that the White House Administration created a Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006 demonstrates the appreciation of Judaism as a “people.” There is an Italian American Heritage Month, a Native American Heritage Month, a National Hispanic Heritage Month, and an Irish American Heritage Month, to name a few. There is not a Protestant or Catholic or Hindu American Heritage Month. This might seem to be a simple point. However, in light of the growing delegitimization campaign against the State of Israel, it is worthy of noting and celebrating that the government of the United States officially recognizes Judaism as more than merely a religious identity. The status of Judaism as a national, cultural, and ethnic identity was a prominent feature of the day. Furthermore, from the beginning of my White House experience, speaker after speaker acknowledged that our national identity legitimately connects us to the sovereign State of Israel.
Our day began with a “Community Leaders Briefing” for about 100 of the reception guests. The first speaker was Dan Shapiro, the Senior Director for the Middle East, who awaits his official confirmation as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel. He assured us that it is a “core feature of Administration policy” to defend Israel against “any and all forms of delegitimization.” Later in the day, when President Obama welcomed our group at the reception, he began by first welcoming Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Again, it might seem to be a simple and obvious point that White House officials would seek to reassure a group of Jewish leaders about their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, I do not take for granted that the highest levels of our U.S. government appreciate, accept, and support my connection and loyalty to the State of Israel as a “Jewish American.”
I was also struck by the presentation of Jon Carson, the Director of the Office of Public Engagement, who spoke in the morning briefing. Carson welcomed our group of Jewish political, business, educational, cultural, and religious leaders from all sectors of the Jewish community as new members of the White House “outreach team.” He reminded us that there were 5 million members of Obama’s “outreach team” during his presidential campaign. All American citizens who blogged, emailed, tweeted, called, or engaged in discussion with their neighbors and networks about Obama’s candidacy contributed to his victory. A guiding value and principle of Obama’s leadership, Carson explained, is that the administration “seeks to create opportunities for shared responsibility.” The Obama Administration cannot accomplish its goals and implement its vision without empowering Americans to proactively campaign for their realization.
The same is true of the Jewish community. I think that all successful Jewish organizations, from synagogues to Federations to educational institutions, must “create opportunities for shared responsibility.” In order for our communities to thrive and flourish, we must create a sense of ownership, purpose, and mission among all of our members. A handful of Jewish professionals or Jewish leaders cannot ensure the success and vitality of our institutions. Every Jew must be a part of the “outreach team,” to serve as ambassadors for Jewish life, Jewish involvement, and Jewish commitment.
This is especially true of Israel engagement. In an era of growing disenchantment with and disinterest in Israel amongst world Jewry, the Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Project aims to empower and engage Jews worldwide in a new covenantal relationship with the State of Israel. Our values-based curriculum engages North American Jews in serious study and dialogue in an attempt to create a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel in Jewish life. The Hartman Institute seeks to create opportunities for North American Jewish leaders and educators to share responsibility, not only for Israel advocacy, but also for shaping the future of an Israeli society guided by Jewish values.
This notion of “shared responsibility” resonated with me throughout my exhilarating experience at the White House. In preparation for the great honor of meeting the President of the United States, I had consulted Jewish sources to find the appropriate blessing for meeting a great leader. The traditional blessing upon seeing a ruler is, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood.” However, to my surprise, I learned that this blessing is recited in its full form only when the ruler is an all-powerful king. If the ruler is democratically elected, then only an abbreviated form of the blessing is recited. I puzzled over this nuance in the weeks leading up to my White House visit. However, after reflecting on the value of “shared responsibility” in the White House and in the Jewish community, I came to an understanding of why the traditional blessing should be abbreviated for an elected official. When all citizens of a society have a voice in determining the principles and policies of a government, then those citizens share in the God-given glory of human power. One democratically elected politician does not stand alone as a representation of God’s glory and honor in the world. Together as a society, we share that honor and that responsibility to fulfill God’s vision of justice and peace in the world.