CAPITAL CULTURE: White House Party To Fete Jewish Culture

In politics, as elsewhere, it’s a sport that’s almost as popular as people-watching: Guest-list watching.

And this week, it’s the Jewish community in Washington and beyond that’s buzzing over who’ll be on the list when Barack and Michelle Obama host the first-ever White House reception marking Jewish Heritage Month.

The White House won’t divulge the guest list for Thursday afternoon’s event in the East Room. But it’s clearly an eclectic and interesting one and markedly different from past Jewish-themed events like the president’s annual Hanukkah party.

Continued, as excerpted from the writings of Associated Press contributer Jocelyn Noveck:

Where that event brings established Jewish community leaders to the White House, Thursday’s reception is meant to honor American Jews who have made contributions in the arts, music, sports, the space program and other fields.

Perhaps the most prominent guest on the list, according to several people familiar with it: former baseball great Sandy Koufax, the left-handed Hall of Fame pitcher for the Dodgers who famously refused to pitch in a World Series game on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. (Koufax, now 74, couldn’t be reached to confirm his plans.)

That’s a thrill for another guest, popular children’s author Judy Blume. “I was such a fan of his growing up,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday as she was packing for the train to Washington. “I remember how my family was so proud when he made that decision not to pitch.” She said she’d been surprised to get the invitation, but added: “My Jewish heritage is important to me, and I like to celebrate that.

Five-time Olympian swimmer Dara Torres will also be there  and is bringing her mom, she said in an e-mail. Also said to be on the list: Mindy Finkelstein, a young woman who was wounded in a 1999 shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish center.

But the list also includes a number of younger Jewish activists involved in interesting initiatives. One of them, Shawn Landres, heads Jumpstart, which he calls a “thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation.” He’s traveling to Washington from Los Angeles.

There’s been excitement about this, people posting on Facebook and talking about who’s coming,” said Landres.

In the past,” he added, “when there were Jewish events at the White House, they tended to go to the same well of people at big Jewish organizations, the usual suspects. What I’ve noticed here is a commitment to go beyond that. The administration is trying to engage the Jewish community in different ways.”

Of course, it’s no secret that tensions have surfaced between the administration and some elements of the Jewish community over its policy toward Israel, particularly regarding construction of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.

So it’s tempting to see this week’s reception as another step in what many have called Obama’s current “charm offensive” toward American Jewish leaders, including: a meeting last week between the president and Jewish congressional leaders; gatherings of top White House officials and rabbis; addresses by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and National Security Adviser James L. Jones to major Jewish groups; and a private lunch early this month between the president and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

But though Thursday’s event certainly can’t hurt, officials point out that plans have been under way for several months. And the pressure actually began years ago.

Listen, I’ve been trying to get the White House to put on this event for five years,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the congresswoman who spearheaded the campaign to establish Jewish Heritage Month in the first place, and who recently spoke with JewishAchievementBlog.com reporter Kandie Stroud on the topic. “I really don’t think it has anything to do with the current outreach efforts. I’m really excited about the event.

Schultz will attend along with many other Jewish members of Congress. “This is a way to demonstrate that President Obama is committed to the Jewish community. But also it’s a way to educate Americans about the contributions of American Jews, to breed tolerance and understanding.”

To illustrate her point, Schultz said that when she was in college in 1984, a fellow student came up to her and asked if she was Jewish. “I’ve never seen a real one,” the student told her.

Washington Jewish leader William Daroff added that it wasn’t so long ago that Jews in the United States were restricted in many ways: where they could live, what colleges they could attend, and what professions they could aspire to.

“We’ve come a long way, and Jewish Heritage Month is there to celebrate that progress,” said Daroff, director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

But while May was declared Jewish Heritage Month in 2006, set into law by President George W. Bush, this is the first time the White House has agreed to hold a reception to mark it.

I don’t ascribe a motive,” Schultz said. “Presidents are very busy.

Asked why the White House had decided to hold the reception, spokesman Matt Lehrich said the Obamas wanted to celebrate Jewish Americans’ contributions to the nation’s history and culture. “The reception also offers a chance to foster partnership, collaboration, and education in the spirit of Jewish American Heritage Month,” Lehrich said.

So who else is invited? “This could be interesting, seeing what the mix looks like,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was invited but was out of the country.

Or, put another way: “Adam Sandler could write a whole new Hanukkah song after this party,” quipped Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington public relations executive, referring to the popular songs pointing out famous Jewish Americans.

Someone who probably wouldn’t make the song, but is a guest nonetheless, is Rabbi Marc Schneier of New York. He leads two Orthodox congregations and spoke at the 2008 Democratic convention.

But he believes he was invited because of his outreach work to the Muslim community, as president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He’s also been active in furthering ties with the black community.

Our work is very much in concert with President Obama’s agenda,” said Schneier.

A past guest at the White House Hanukkah party, Schneier thinks this event has a whole different feel to it.

This is quite unique,” he said. “It’s more exotic than the usual White House event.

Daroff agreed.

“Listen, anytime there’s a first in Washington, it’s a big deal,” he said.

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