Mr. Bisman Goes to Washington: The CEO of JDub reflects on a Visit to the White House

I was invited to the White House yesterday for Jewish American Heritage Month, and I was giddy.  This was actually my second White House invitation.  The first came when we were invited with Matisyahu to the 2005 Hanukkah party.  While … Read More

By / May 28, 2010

I was invited to the White House yesterday for Jewish American Heritage Month, and I was giddy.  This was actually my second White House invitation.  The first came when we were invited with Matisyahu to the 2005 Hanukkah party.  While he wanted to go, we vetoed the move, wearing, for a rare professional moment, our political views on our sleeves. We were also given a message from Donny Inner, Chairman of SONY MUSIC at the time, saying that one of his artists would fraternize with Bush over his dead body.  Right. Yesterday’s invitation was, clearly, of an entirely different nature.  To be included in such an intimate White House affair was more than just an honor.  It was validation of our work to promote Jewish culture and our efforts to reframe notions of Jewishness and Judaism in America.

But let’s get back to honor.  It was an honor to be invited to an event celebrating Jewish contributions to America, along with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sandy Koufax, Thomas Friedman, and Judy freakin’ Blume.  Not to mention my Jewy associates, including the leaders of RebootG-dcast, Jewish Jumpstart, and Ikar, along with the head of Jewish Federations of North American and a cadre of "friends" (no mention of what their "ish" was).  There were about 200 guests, and after a sweaty wait in the sun, we made our way into the House that George built.  We were a motley bunch.  I’ve never been much for hobnobbing or schmoozing with politicians (I keep my schmoozing to circles I know well: professional Jews and music promoters).  Diane Sawyer sized Lou up, Sarah and I ogled Regina Spektor and Al Franken, and I tried to think of something intelligent to say to Senator Arlen Spector.  We did talk to Judy Blume, gushing about childhoods filled with Fudge and Margaret.  Yes, the food was Kosher, but few of us ate much (ok, I stuffed two very tender pieces of beef in my mouth).  We were free to roam the The East Wing, and I wandered through the elegant rooms full of oil portraits, embroidered furniture, Presidential swords and official White House bathrooms with official White House hand towels (my son needed a memento).

The formal program was short, clocking in at about 30 minutes.  When the President walked in the room, I felt momentarily emotional and exceptionally proud.  Obama spoke, in broad terms, about the contributions of Jewish Americans to their country, and of their resilience, their leadership in civil activism and of course, of the need to protect and stand by Israel.  Meanwhile, Harry Truman’s letter supporting the creation of the Jewish State, which made the US the first state to recognize Israel was on display.  He also dropped the Hebrew words "Yom Kippur", "Bima", and, of course, "Tikkun Olam."

Rabbi Alyssa Stanton, America’s first African American female rabbi, read Emma Lazarus’ "The New
Colossus" with passion (and actually struck a Statue of Liberty pose near the end). Then Regina Spektor played two songs, the second of which felt a bit somber for the occasion.  She seemed pretty nervous, missing a few notes and crying out mid song "this is hard!"  It was a bold move by the White House not to bring a schmaltzy Klezmer performer or an a Capella group to sing "Hava Nagilah" (although Babs would have fit right in), and while I would have loved to bring Clare Burson or Girls in Trouble to play some new Jewish music, Regina’s personal story as a Russian immigrant who’s achieved the American dream fit well with the day’s theme.  Though, I’m pretty sure this was lost on most attendees, a few of whom, knowing our work, asked me what she was doing there and what the significance of her performance was.

That was it.  The President, First Lady, and Vice President stood up and snapped photos with the Democratic fundraisers in the first few (reserved) rows.  I tried, team, I really did, but we couldn’t get near him.  I lingered for a few minutes, and one lovely staffer let us into the Presidential screening room, where I tried out the President’s plush red recliner.  From there, we were quickly ushered out, and I was left to ponder what exactly I was doing there.  Still, as the head of a cultural Jewish non-profit, my invitation felt revolutionary.  My being there is proof of this administration’s ability to recognize the variety of Jewish voices speaking out today, and that President Obama respects and values the religious and cultural importance of Judaism for Americans today and throughout our country’s history. 

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