By Diane Joy Schmidt
Special to the New Mexico Jewish eLink
Due to the generosity of an anonymous donor, I was selected to receive a scholarship to attend the four-day joint Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly and American Jewish Press Association conference in Washington, D.C. in November as one of ten journalists who had won Rockower awards.
After riding the metro from Reagan International Airport, I walked into the Hilton on Connecticut Avenue. It was Sunday afternoon. Security was tight. There were body scanners and guards with bored looking guard dogs and plain clothed men on stairways with muscles tight under their suits and sporting plastic ear buds. At registration I was handed a cleverly humorous booklet of events with snazzy graphics. Then it hit me. The combined experience of 5,000 years of bar mitzvah, wedding, and more recently, Washington D.C. political event directors, had not gone to waste.
Then into the first hall. Riotous splashes of color were achieved through 20 foot high banners, and this intensive planning included a sophisticated cell phone app that would regularly buzz to remind me of all the events I had chosen to partake.
On the press stage, an intense conversation between Ambassador Dennis Ross and Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week of New York was being closely followed by a rapt audience. Every hour different luminaries of public office and journalists interviewed each other discussing all the pressing issues from every angle imaginable. In the background, a TV news monitor broadcasted news of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrival. He would be meeting with Obama at the White House the next morning.
Forty booths around the main hall included Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that helps Jews to make aliyah to Israel, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation with the latest PJ Library books,
J Street, the Jerusalem Post, the Ethiopian National Project, students of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and many more. That night, buses shuttled to the National Portrait Gallery; it was a unique opportunity to wander the museum, opened privately to the party-goers, and also gorge on heaping tables of pastries and be deafened by a live band in the central hall.
The real unexpected highlight came the next day – a private briefing Monday afternoon at the White House for the Jewish press following Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama. As a line of shiny black taxi limos pulled up outside the Hilton to ferry us there, a person from our crowd hopped into the front seat of the first one and called out, room for more! I jumped in, and was joined by St. Louis Jewish Light editor Ellen Futterman and publisher Larry Levin. Our host in the front seat turned out to be Steve Rabinowitz, president of Bluelight Strategies, the organizer of the entire event. Traffic came to a standstill as we approached the White House, and we got out and walked, just in time to see the presidential motorcade leaving. Rabinowitz, who has worked closely on nine national presidential campaigns and served as Bill Clinton’s White House director of design and production, pointed out the two separate limousines for the president, so that no one could be sure which one he was riding in. As the motorcade passed out of the gates, I captured a silhouette of a tall person on the phone in the second limo. It was followed by heavy black vans that contained sophisticated communications and security details.
We entered the president’s executive offices in the Eisenhower building next to the West Wing and wound our way up a staircase to a diplomatic receiving room to receive an off-the-record briefing from U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro and two other high level White House staff. This following the anxiously anticipated meeting earlier in the day between Obama and Netanyahu. Able to speak freely, they each gave a clearer picture of what really was on their minds, and these career officials and their insights greatly impressed me with their integrity and that of the Obama White House.
I asked if tensions were less this time at the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, and got a picture of the actual sophisticated working relationship that goes on day by day with Israel that has nothing to do with the exaggerated emphasis on personality clashes featured in the press, covered like so much celebrity gossip. As this smoke cleared away, I saw the enormous efforts being made to keep this country, and Israel, on a democratic course.
And that morning had marked the successful outcome of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. The U.S. and Israel announced a renewed commitment to, and further agreements being made for, the next ten years of strategic cooperation and support by the U.S. for Israel. And as Netanyahu pointed out that morning, Obama has met with him more than with any other foreign minister. The Obama administration has also given Israel more military aid than any previous administration, which notably helped build the advanced Iron Dome missile defense system that kept most of the more than 4,000 rockets launched at Israel from Gaza from reaching populated areas in 2014, and is now funding the more advanced David’s Sling and further iterations of missile defense systems.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu addressed the final plenary of the General Assembly. Before his entrance, the entire assembly rose and sang Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel. There were an estimated 4,000 in the hall. It was an electrifying, life-changing moment, and in standing together with my colleagues from across the U.S.A., Canada, and Israel, including correspondents, editors and publishers of every major Jewish news publication, it felt like a reunion of compatriots. I felt, finally, at home. When Netanyahu entered, the applause lasted for about five seconds after he reached the podium.
The next two days included two tracks of trainings with the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) conference, one track for reporting and one for the increasingly difficult business of keeping Jewish publications alive. Tuesday night the 34th annual Rockower Awards banquet was held at Adas Israel, Washington’s largest conservative synagogue and the one most often frequented by U.S. presidents. It was also the first synagogue to invite Martin Luther King to speak, in 1963.
The keynote speech given Alan Cooperman from the Pew Research Center was titled “The Tao of Pew: Putting Jewish population trends in comparative perspective,” about their recent survey of American Jews. On a positive if relative note, he said that while half of Jewish children today are from intermarried couples, they seem to be choosing to remain Jewish into adulthood longer and in larger numbers than the children from intermarried couples did in the past. Apparently it’s “cooler” to be Jewish nowadays.
As the Rockower awards were handed out, this reporter received two first-place awards, one for reporting in publications with a circulation under 15,000, and one for photography across all media. This was not just a first for the New Mexico Jewish Link, it was a recognition of the significance of the news made by the Jewish community here. The awards were for two articles in 2014 about how the anti-Israel BDS resolutions put forth in both the undergraduate and graduate student senates were successfully repelled by UNM’s Hillel students under the direction of Hillel Director Sara Koplik, and their Lobos for Israel student group founded by student Sarah Abonyi.
I showed the AJPA international press members the New Mexico Jewish Link’s print editions that featured the demographic survey (February 2015, online) and the BDS issues, and spoke directly about the challenges being faced on the UNM campus by Hillel students here because of the anti-Israel BDS movement. On a lighter note, I mentioned how the demographic study uncovered that we have twice as many Jews in New Mexico as we thought, 24,000.
Four days of meetings have since blurred together, but I came away most importantly having had the visceral experience and sense of being connected to the larger Jewish community, and being a part of something greater than myself.
And from this experience I can also see that, just as Jews in New Mexico may be a tiny fraction of the population here but have an outsized imprint, New Mexico itself, because of its uniquely diverse ethnicities, spiritual strengths, flavors and talents, also can hold an outsized voice in the national conversation this election year and in the shape of things to come.