Miriam inside the gates of the White House. Courtesy of Miriam Shapiro
The invitation finally came, but unfortunately it was on Shabbat. I’ve never had such anxiety about opening a letter before, but then again, I have never before received an invitation from the White House. It was very strange to think that it was all happening to me: Miriam Shapiro, eighteen years old, invited to a reception at the White House.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month, as declared originally during the administration of President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama decided to take it one step further by inviting Jews who have made contributions in the arts, music, sports and sciences as well in other fields for the first-ever White House reception marking this event. On the guest list were people such as baseball player Sandy Koufax and journalists Tom Friedman and David Brooks of the New York Times. I was very excited and apprehensive to attend.
My term as international president of NCSY, the youth organization of the Orthodox Union, has enabled me to get involved with teens from all over the world, which has been an unbelievable experience. But I never imagined my position would take me to White House.
On May 27th, the day of the event, I arrived at the White House and stood in line with the other guests. After I had been through multiple security checkpoints and a metal detector, it hit me: I was walking on ground that is not open to the general public.
As I wandered through the rooms in the White House, I felt as if I had gone back in time. I saw the portraits of many past US presidents, and the dishes used at various dinners held at the White House over the years. I also got to see the original document recognizing the State of Israel signed by President Truman. It was completely surreal. I was living history.
I entered the reception room, which was filling up. I felt as if I were at a dinner party with some of my friends—except that my “friends” were singers, athletes, astronauts and politicians. We were eventually ushered into a room where we were told to wait in line to take a photograph with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
When I saw the president, I said the berachah one is supposed to say upon meeting a president, “Baruch . . . shenatan michvodo lebasar vadam,” (Blessed Who has given of His glory to human beings) and awaited my turn. A Marine announced my name, and I entered the room with the Obamas. After posing for the picture, I wanted to say something meaningful to the president. I told him how honored I was to be representing the youth of Orthodox Jewry. He smiled and thanked me for coming; I was then led into an adjoining room where the president would address the guests.
The president delivered an inspirational speech about the need to recognize the struggles and accomplishments of the Jewish people. He said that the Jewish people serve as an inspiration to the rest of society because we are able to move forward and achieve success despite having faced significant challenges.
As the reception came to a close and I prepared to leave, I flashed back to some moments before meeting the president, when I had the opportunity to speak to Koufax, the legendary baseball player who wouldn’t play on Yom Kippur. I was a bit star-struck all day, but I mustered up the courage to ask him if he would smile as I took his picture. Afterwards, I turned to him and asked, “Mr. Koufax, you are such an inspiration to so many Jews. Did you ever think that you would end up as such a celebrity [for not playing on Yom Kippur]?”
He said, “Listen, I was just doing what I had to do. I was just being myself, standing up for what I believed in. If that inspires other people to do what’s right, I’m glad. But I’m just me.”
On my way home, I reflected on how lucky I was to have been a part of such a tremendous day.
The author lives in Great Neck, New York, and recently graduated from Yeshiva University High School for Girls.