On Visiting the White House

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

As I scanned down through my inbox a few weeks ago and saw “The White House” in bold letters, I assumed it was a fundraising pitch, or spam of some sort. But it wasn’t. It was an actual invitation, from the President and First Lady, to attend the first-ever Jewish New Year celebration at The White House. 

To be honest, I’m still trying to untangle the mix of feelings I felt when I realized that the invitation was for real. I felt honored, to be sure. And flattered. But also uneasy somehow. Could I be holding millennia-old Jewish post-traumatic suspicion? Was I still embodying the fear of the Roman authorities that Shemaya and Avtalyon were talking about when they said (in Pirkei Avot 1:10), “Don’t make yourself known to the government”? And which Rabban Gamliel warned us about just a chapter later (2:3) when he said, “Be careful of the ruling powers” (whether rabbinic or governmental!)? 

As Jews, we’ve had a long history of appropriate suspicion of the government. Queer people, trans people, people with disabilities, Black people, Indigenous People, People of Color, and so many others in this country—have real tainehs (legitimate claims of damage) with our government. What would it mean for me to accept this invitation, I wondered? I was not only uneasy, I felt almost embarrassed by the thought of going, implicated somehow. Being marginalized and standing in solidarity with those excluded from the halls of power is part of who I am. Who am I if I’m being invited to the f*cking White House?! My first impulse was to politely decline. 

Then I told my mother. To say that she was ecstatic would be an understatement. I told her I wasn’t sure I was going to go. “What?! You have to go! It’s a big honor!” She insisted I forward her the email so she could print it out to show the ladies in her exercise class. My sister said she would never speak to me again if I didn’t go. And literally within seconds I was on five separate text conversations with nieces, nephews, and siblings sharing their excitement and making suggestions on what I should wear. 

I tried to focus on the fact that I was being invited, of course, not so much as Benay Lappe, the person, but as Benay Lappe the Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA, representing our yeshiva and the entire SVARA community. I hoped very much that y’all would be proud to know that we had been recognized because of what we’ve done together in the bet midrash, and because of what we’ve taken from the bet midrash and brought out into the world. 

I have to confess that I then played the “pushy Jewish mother” card and wrangled my way into a plus-one invitation, and the next day my sixteen-year-old daughter Molly and I were on a plane for Washington, D.C.

After being admitted to the White House, we were encouraged to wander through the rooms of the East Wing and to take as many pictures as we wanted. Which we did! When we happened upon the portrait of Michelle Obama, we gasped in awe—a highlight for sure. We were eventually guided into a large, formal hall, The East Room, where the guests—maybe 150 or so—were gathering and schmoozing. At that point, the queers found each other and the reunion began. There were hugs and catch-ups, lots of group selfies, and proud introductions: “Molly, this is Idit Klein. Remember that Queer Shabbaton you went on? She’s the head of the organization that created that.” “Molly, this is Rabbi Deborah Waxman. She’s the president of the Reconstructionist rabbinical school.” “Molly, this is Randi Weingarten. She’s the head of all the teachers in America.” “Molly, this is Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. She’s the head of the biggest queer synagogue in the country. And she’s one of my mentors.” “Molly, this is Rabbi Abby Stein…” “Molly, this is Rabbi Sandra Lawson…” and on and on it went.

And for the next hour or so I forgot that I was in the White House, and was just swimming in the jubilation of seeing old comrades, many of whom had started their queer Jewish projects when I was starting mine. We were part of what we could now look back on as a moment of queer Jewish world-building that, maybe, just maybe, has made a little bit of a difference in the world. Together with all of you, we really did manage to make something happen, didn’t we? 

And for the first time, I saw us all through Molly’s eyes, through the eyes of the next generation of queer folk. And what I hope—and actually think—was going through Molly’s mind was: Wow, look what they did. Look what they’re still doing…and now, just imagine what we’re going to do

My joy, though, was punctuated by a certain sadness. I kept thinking that the next generation is already on the ground, doing the work, and that they should be in the room, too! There definitely weren’t enough of us there that day. Where were more of the younger Jewish activists and leaders, I wondered? Where were more of the trans Jewish visionaries, where were more of the Black Jewish world-builders, where were more of the Jewish disability Justice leaders—who are changing the world right now? The room was still too cis, too male, too white. But I knew that this day was a tiny step in the right direction. And that some of the youngins who are right there with us on the front lines will be at the next White House gathering. And some of the youngins they bring up will be at the one after that. And when some of us and them still never get invited to the White House…we’ll know we’re doing it right. 

When the President, First Lady, Vice President, and Second Gentleman were announced, I’d almost forgotten that they were the main event. I realized that, for that one hour, I was in a yeshiva shel ma’alah, a heavenly gathering, of queer Jewish leaders—both those in the room that day and not—who stood on the shoulders of the queer Jewish leaders who came before us, and on whose shoulders Molly and her comrades now stand. And, for me, that was the main event. 

May the next generation keep a healthy suspicion of the government and push it as hard as we did, if not harder, toward creating a more just and liberatory world. And may they continue to live out our queer superpower of making ourselves known. To ourselves. To each other. And to the world. And may they go Option 3 on Shemaya and Avtalyon and, yes, in fact, make themselves known to the government.

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