Amid the horrifying events and devastating losses in Israel, President Biden’s strong support has been a lifeline for the Jewish community in the United States, in Israel, and across the world. To show their gratitude, several Jewish day schools across Long Island and Queens recently teamed up to write 10,000 letters thanking the President for standing with Israel and presenting them at the White House in person, with North Shore Hebrew Academy chosen as one of these select schools.
The monumental opportunity was a grassroots effort — and kicked off last week when NSHA Student Activities Director Peri Santodonato received a text message from her mother asking if NSHA students might want to take part in this initiative. The rabbis at her mother’s synagogue, Young Israel of Woodmere, Rabbis Axelrod and Schachter, developed this special project after listening to President Biden’s remarks on October 10th, during which he proclaimed that the U.S. stands with Israel and has Israel’s back. NSHA Head of School Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Kobrin reached out to the rabbis, and, together with Cynthia Bernstein, Director of Management and Administration at the Office of the Vice President at The White House, who is an Orthodox Jew, and Shelley Greenspan, White House liaison to the Jewish community, this effort quickly came together.
NSHA spent just a few days mobilizing its community to write almost 1,000 handwritten letters to the President. The letters were each vetted, placed into envelopes, packaged, and hand-delivered to the White House in advance of the schools’ visit, together with the other schools’ letters.
On October 18th, about 40 Modern Orthodox Jewish day school students from 4th to 8th grade, including those from NSHA, boarded a coach bus and traveled to Washington, DC. Because of Pro-Palestinian protests taking place at the Capitol, the bus was diverted several times, and NSHA was not sure they would make it in time for their visit.
Fortunately, they made it, and when they arrived, they were ushered into The White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, which was filled with over 50 boxes of letters — containing more than 18,000 individual, handwritten letters of gratitude from around the globe, vastly exceeding their goal.
The students were greeted by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Shelley Greenspan, as well as many of the administration’s Jewish staffers. When Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein learned that this cohort was there, he also joined the meeting. President Biden had a good excuse for not being present — he was meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
“We were told that this letter-writing campaign was an unprecedented gesture and it was clear how much it meant to the entire staff,” said Ms. Santodonato.
Three children read letters out loud, sharing that students’ family members were Holocaust survivors and that they are so appreciative that President Biden and the U.S. Government are supporting Israel, sending aid and critical equipment, and standing up for good against evil. They shared that because of the administration’s support, they do not feel alone.
Then, Second Gentleman Emhoff addressed the room of students, saying: “I am the first Jewish person ever married to a president or a vice president, and in this role, I have taken on fighting against antisemitism and hate. And will continue to do so no matter what.
“I want you to know: I know how you all are feeling. I feel the same way. Hearts are broken. I know this is a really tough time right now, and I know it’s scary. But I just want you to know that we have your back. We’re going to be there for you, and we’re going to be there for Israel, and we’re going to get through this. And so the fact that you all came here, and drove five hours or more and got on a bus, and came right to the White House with almost 20,000 handwritten letters that you accumulated just in the last couple of days, that helps us too. This gives us strength to keep fighting for all of you.”
Students had the opportunity to tour Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff’s office and to see the beautiful view of Washington, DC from his balcony. The children were in awe.
According to Ms. Santodonato, “The experience was truly eye-opening for our students. By witnessing a war in Israel and writing letters to the U.S. administration, our students now truly understand the importance of being staunch and passionate Israel supporters and see that they can make a difference.”
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