WASHINGTON – Jewish astronauts, Olympians, authors and veterans are among the luminaries who have been invited to attend the inaugural White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month Thursday.
The month has been marked for the past four years but never before with an event hosted by the president and first lady.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich described the month’s designation as one that has “highlighted the integral role Jewish Americans have played in shaping our nation’s history and culture” and that the Obamas “wanted to take this opportunity to further celebrate these contributions.”
Though no official guest list has been released, Jewish members of Congress, top communal leaders and key fund-raisers are expected to attend. Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax and writer Judy Blume are among the celebrities set to appear, though lower-profile members of the Jewish community, including founders of non-profits and survivors of terror attacks, have also been invited.
Jewish officials welcomed the White House decision to hold a reception for the occasion, calling it a sign of the progress made in America and by the community.
“It helps to emphasize how far we’ve come as a nation, and that Jews are a critical component of the country,” said William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. “It emphasizes the progress we’ve made in the Jewish community in being accepted into the mainstream of American culture.”
And Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, pointed out that American culture is composed of contributions from many groups, with Jews being just one example of that national tradition.
“This is part of the mosaic of events in which the White House can recognize and highlight and connect with a segment of American society,” he said, referring to similar receptions on behalf of St. Patrick’s Day, Cinqo de Mayo, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the last of which was held on Monday as it’s also in May.
But many community leaders also noted that the event was coming on the heels of concerted outreach from the White House to American Jews following differences over US policy toward Israel. In the past month, top officials have made speeches to Jewish groups on the importance of the US-Israel relationship and the White House has welcomed rabbis, communal leaders and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
The moves have helped ease the tension that began when the Interior Ministry approved new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem during a March trip by Vice President Joe Biden. His condemnation of the move was intensified by a public scolding by US officials upon his return, and many American Jewish groups felt the loud criticism was inappropriate and raised questions about the US commitment to Israel.
“It’s clear that in recent weeks the administration has recognized that it needed to do some damage control with the American Jewish community,” said Stuart Weinblatt, who was among the rabbis invited to the White House. “What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is a concerted effort to reassure the American Jewish community and so I think in all likelihood this is an extension of that effort.”
The White House pushed back against the notion that this event was part of the recent outreach to defuse tensions, with one administration official saying, “This is something we’ve been talking to members of Congress and others about for many months. We’ve been planning the event since before Passover” at the end of March.
Daroff indicated that he had heard that a Jewish American Heritage Month reception was in the works since before Biden’s trip and that he thought the major reason for the heightened profile of the event was that it represented a “natural progression” in the way the month was being marked.
He added, though, that “the White House has acknowledged that there is a charm offensive taking place with the Jewish community,” and that this celebration fits into that effort.
But for those in the community who have been particularly skeptical of Obama’s approach on Israel and outraged over the recent bumps in the relationship, some predicted cynicism rather than reassurance would be the result.
“Unquestionably people by their nature are going to have that aspect to it – of cynicism,” said one anonymous Jewish leader speaking of the reaction within his community. “Is this going to assuage them? There will be those who will not be assuaged by this.”
Diament described his own Orthodox community as “on the record as being very skeptical of the president in terms of his politics,” continuing that, “I don’t think a single reception is going to magically change that.”
He explained, “I don’t think you can take any one event in isolation.
There were many events and statements that occurred over a long period
of time which fomented concern, so it will take many events and
statements to allay people’s concerns.”
Weinblatt said that in any case, outreach had its limits when it came
to perceptions of the Obama administration: “The true test will be how
it deals with Israel and other international issues.”
Still, he said of the reception, “It certainly is fresh and welcome,
and it’s an opportunity for the administration to make a statement to
the wider Jewish community and hopefully beyond that.”
He added, “Like my grandmother said about chicken soup, having an event like this isn’t going to hurt, and it could even help.”