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NFTY President Reflects on White House Visit

NFTY President Reflects on White House Visit

Aliza Slavin Gazek is the 2009-2010 President of the North American
Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).

aliza1thumb.jpg
As you know, this year I've served as President of NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth. NFTY encompasses 10,000 Reform Jewish teens from all across the US and Canada, serving as the youth movement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). So many moments from my Presidency have made me smile since I was handed the gavel last June. Now, as I reach the end of my term, I'm overjoyed to have attended the President's reception at the White House honoring Jewish American Heritage Month. The event was thrilling, and I'm excited to share everything. Here's my story.

May 14:

When I came home this Friday night for the start of a brief
visit, my mom casually handed me a letter that had arrived for me a
couple of days previous, saying it was from my Nana Phyllis. When she
handed me the envelope, my eyes immediately gravitated toward the gold
embossed return address. "Why does it say it's from the White House?" I
asked her. She assumed it was just one of Nana's silly cards in which
she pretends to be someone famous, often "Brad Pitt" or another celeb.
The calligraphic address seemed more impeccable than is humanly
possible, but the postmark really gave it away--Nana's letter couldn't
have traveled from New Jersey to Maryland to receive a postmark. So my
mom and I exchanged stares and I carefully tore open the envelope.

The cream colored invitation featured a gold seal and read in
raised cursive type:

The President and Mrs. Obama
request the pleasure of your
company
at a reception in celebration of
Jewish American
Heritage Month
to be held at
The White House
on Thursday,
May 27, 2010
at three o'clock.

Because the small card attached indicated that I should RSVP by
calling the Social Secretary and sharing my date of birth and social
security number, I was still skeptical of a scam, questioning the
legitimacy of this invitation. But my mom got right on the internet and
soon found the press release about the event. The Obamas were observing
Jewish American Heritage Month for the first time since its inception by
the previous administration in 2006. The reception would honor American
Jews from across fields, from Olympians to business figures, to
community leaders, to scholars, and more.

So I squealed and booked my plane tickets.

May 27:

I traveled to the White House in style--accompanied by David
Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
and a member of Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood
Partnerships, and his mentor Al Vorspan, a wise WWI veteran who served
as the Director of the Commission on Social Action for 50 years,
instrumental in bringing together Jews and the NAACP during the Civil
Rights movement. I was often mistaken as his granddaughter throughout
the event, and gladly so, as I admire his fervor and his jovial
attitude.

When we arrived at the Southeast Gate to the White House, we
joined a line of American Jews dressed in business attire, sweating
noticeably in the ninety-degree heat. An impressive succession of
security checks followed, providing a venue conducive to making friends.
In line, we stood ahead of Bob Woodward, famous investigator of the
Watergate Scandal, and spoke with the CEO of Spanx. The marines working
each security check were friendly as they viewed our IDs and moved us
along.

Once we finally entered the East Wing, we walked past various
auxiliary rooms and made our way upstairs to the heart of the reception,
where a string quartet dressed in red played background music.
Saperstein was quick to say hello and introduce us all around, as we
mingled with quite the variety of Jews. Soon the other youth leaders
found me, which wasn't too difficult given the average age of the
crowd--much older than nineteen. These friendly Presidents of USY, BBYO,
and NCSY were beyond enthusiastic about the event and eager for their
terms as Presidents, which were just beginning. We were all told to meet
at the entrance to the Blue Room at about ten minutes to four, because
the President wanted to meet us. Eek!

Soon thereafter, Sandy Koufax appeared and the crowd
immediately gravitated toward the celebrity. A hero to most of us for
refusing to pitch for the LA Dodgers in Game One of the 1965 World
Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, he attracted much attention. In
fact, Saperstein confided in him that in all his twenty years of visits
to the White House, he had never before that very moment asked anyone
for a photograph. After taking our picture together, we met Judy Blume, a
name come to life in a purple blazer after reading it on book covers
for years.

When the time neared four o'clock, our cohort of youth leaders
migrated to the Blue Room, where a few others joined us. Among the small
crowd was Mindy Finklestein, a young woman who was the target of a hate
crime when she was working at the LA Jewish Community Center several
years ago. Alysa Stanton, America's first African-American female rabbi,
and her eighth grade daughter Shana were also there, as was musician
Regina Spektor and her family. When Regina asked the Rabbi if she was
born Jewish, she replied that she thinks she was but was sent down the
wrong chute, so she made her way back to Judaism by converting in her
early twenties. Paula Fuga, a Hawaiian ukulele player and singer also
waited with us. She was supposed to perform on Monday at the
Asian-American Heritage Month reception, but was here today instead,
wearing leis she'd transported from Hawaii in an icebox. Paula will tour
with Jack Johnson this summer. As we chatted, we noticed Supreme Court
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the room and hovered nearby to say hello
while she finished a conversation. A man introduced himself to us as we
looked on--none other than Steven Breyer, a fellow Justice.

Soon we were called to line up and receive photo cards. After
many more anticipatory minutes, the President and the First Lady arrived
in the Green Room, and the line began to move forward. Michelle wore a
deep blue dress with white polka dots and a brooch on one side. And it
was sleeveless, which I later heard someone remark on as though she'd
worn white after Labor Day. The President of NCSY, the Orthodox youth
movement, had been asked if the President should refrain from shaking
her hand, as she was shomer negiah and did not touch men, but she gladly
made an exception. As we got closer, she recited the blessing for
meeting the President, something she'd never before had an opportunity
to do.

Once I neared the front of the line, I pronounced my name clearly
for the Marine who would introduce me, repeating it after seeing his
initial reaction to my two not-so-usual names. "Aliza Gazek," he read
correctly, and the President extended his hand and smiled, saying, "Hey,
how's it going?" An incessant smile consumed my face, and I recall
managing to get something out about being so happy to be there. "This is
my wife Michelle," he said as I moved to shake her hand. (No, really?)
They towered above me as we put our arms around each other for a
picture. My moment in the spotlight was quickly over, and I progressed
to the Red Room, where I retrieved my purse and then walked with the
other youth leaders to the East Room for the formal part of the program.

I found a seat toward the back next to Judy
Blume and her husband, and she and I exchanged comments about our
difficulty seeing over the heads of all the men in front of us. The
press lined the back of the room and overflowed onto the sides, cameras
flashing. Soon, the voice of G-d came over the loud speaker, introducing
the First Lady and the Vice President, who entered and took their seats
in the front row. Everyone stood for their entrance and kept standing
for the President's subsequent entrance. He commanded a room of
supporters. His address was brief, highlighting the contributions of
American Jews to life in America, both historically and today. He
started off by listing various groups of people who were in attendance,
ending with Sandy Koufax, clearly his own category. "Sandy and I have
something in common," he told us. "We're both left handed." People
laughed. "Sandy can't pitch on Yom Kippur," he said, pronouncing "yom"
with a short o and then pausing. "I can't pitch." The crowd loved it.

After Obama's speech, Rabbi Alysa Stanton read Emma Lazarus's
poem "The New Colossus," which is mounted inside the Statue of Liberty,
and Regina Spektor's performance followed. She entered and sat at the
piano, nervous breaths audible through the microphone before she
vigorously started in on the piano, curled hair bobbing with the swells
of her impassioned voice. During the first song, she said, "Oh G-d, this
is hard!" and the audience giggled and clapped. She gained a fan in
Judy Blume, who told me, "This girl's great!" After two songs, Regina
smiled broadly and left the stage. And despite the voice of G-d telling
us, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stay in your seats," we soon figured
out that the program was over and that it was time for us to leave.

I managed to meet Olympic swimmer Dara Torres and speak with the
overwhelmed, ecstatic Regina on the way out. The marines slowly moved us
all toward the exit, and one woman remarked something like, "Don't they
know how hard it is to get Jews to leave?" To prolong our visit and
also stop at a must-see destination, Mindy Finklestein and I took a pit
stop in the ladies restroom, which was not complete without pocketing
several disposable hand towels featuring the gold Presidential seal.

And so we finally bade our farewells to the friendly marines and
exited the White House, where I said goodbye to my new friends and
rejoined David Saperstein, which allowed me to exchange pleasantries
with the man who heads Manischewitz. Turns out the White House doesn't
serve any of his wine--what a shanda.

It was truly an honor to be invited to the White House on behalf
of NFTY. A few of the people I met responded with excitement when I
explained my role as NFTY President, telling me they'd participated
anywhere from ten to 80,000 years ago. The email I received following up
on my invitation expressed appreciation for "incredible organizations
that empower teens like NFTY", and I am overjoyed to see our President
recognizing the importance of our youth movements. Thank you to my
family, my friends, and everyone with a relationship to NFTY for
allowing me the opportunity to receive this thank-you on NFTY's behalf.
May we continue to empower teens and breed proud alumni for years to
come.

Published: 6/02/2010

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