Surrounded by so many of her heroes in the East Room of the White House, Sarah Lefton could have become a wallflower. Instead, she knew her presence at the Jewish American Heritage Month reception was a “once in a lifetime opportunity. You just can’t be shy.”
So she shmoozed like there was no tomorrow.
The San Francisco resident and creator of G-dcast, a weekly online Torah cartoon series, was one of 250 invitees at the event.
Others on the guest list included Jewish members of Congress, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, athletes, nonprofit innovators such as Lefton, journalists, entertainers and community organizers.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted the May 27 event.
Among those in attendance were Lee Rosenberg, the president of AIPAC; Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Israel’s ambassador to the Unites States Michael Oren; and J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami.
There were also journalists such as Roger Cohen and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Heeb publisher Josh Newman and columnist Doug Bloomfield.
The star of the afternoon perhaps was Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame left-hander.
“We’ve got senators and representatives, we’ve got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes — and Sandy Koufax,” Obama said in his remarks. “Sandy and I actually have something in common — we are both lefties. He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur; I can’t pitch.”
Lefton, 36, said Koufax, 74, was “bashfully gracious, sweet and soft-spoken” when she approached him at the reception. “I told him about G-dcast and said, ‘Maybe you’ll narrate a piece,’ “ she added. “He said probably not.”
She also chatted with Justice Ginsburg, who proved a bit intimidating.
“Of all the people there, the high school debate nerd in me was extremely awestruck by her,” Lefton recalled. “I finally had a little social opening to shake her hand, and I thanked her for her work.”
The reception was in the works for months, and planning predated the recent tensions between Israel and the United States. Still, the White House’s pro-Jewish and pro-Israel messages were timely — coming in the wake of a weeks-long “charm offensive” launched by the White House to help allay anxieties over tensions with Jerusalem.
The reception included a traditional reference to the “unbreakable” Israel-U.S. alliance dating back to 1948.
Jewish values, Obama said, “helped lead America to recognize and support Israel as a Jewish homeland and a beacon for democratic values — beginning mere minutes after its independence was declared. In fact, we have the original statement by President Harry Truman on display here today.”
Rabbi Alyssa Stanton of Greenville, N.C., the first black female rabbi, read the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and pop singer Regina Spektor sang a couple of songs. Among the other athletes present was Dara Torres, the five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer.
The heritage month was established after legislation written by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) passed in 2006. In subsequent years, Jewish Democrats fumed that President George W. Bush did nothing more to mark the month than issue a proclamation.
After such griping, it raised eyebrows last year when Obama did not mark the month, so the May 27 reception was seen as inevitable.
“It was beyond inspirational,” Lefton said. “It was so exciting, just to be called out as someone to be in the room with these people. It makes me feel my work is valued.”
Dan Pine of j. and Ron Kampeas of JTA contributed to this report.