LOS ANGELES (JTA) — It doesn’t get more “only in America” than this: A Christian president with an African-born Muslim father throws a Chanukah party at the White House, and the featured act is the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir — a group that serves as a beacon of Jewish pride and identity at the nation’s top military academy, while also boasting a non-Jewish conductor and plenty of non-Jewish members.
And one more twist.
When the Jewish choir performed at the White House Chanukah party earlier this month, it chose to serenade the commander in chief with a song of peace.
“We were invited there for the party, a big honor,” said Cadet Evan Szablowski, 20, the choir’s non-Jewish conductor, a junior from Bakersfield, Calif.
After performing for arriving guests such holiday favorites as “Maoz Tzur,” ‘Who Can Retell” and “Oh Chanukah,” the 34 singing cadets — a group of men and women — were directed to file quickly into the Diplomatic Reception Room for a photo with President Obama and the first lady.
“Then the president came in,” Szablowski said, “and in a big booming voice welcomed us. He and Michelle shook our hands. The president looked into each of our eyes.”
Moments after the photo was taken, “totally out of nowhere, [the president] asked if we can perform,” recalled Szablowski, who spoke to JTA shortly after completing his final in “Mathematics and Networks for Counter Insurgency.”
From its repertoire of Jewish songs, the chorus quickly decided to perform one of the group’s favorites, “Lo Yisa Goy.”
But first, Szablowski recounted, the group explained that the song is based on the words of the prophet Isaiah, which translated from Hebrew includes the famous passage, “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”
“It’s probably the coolest thing I have ever done at the academy. We were giddy,” Szablowski said, adding that about halfway through the performance it hit him — “a Jewish choir was performing for the president of the United States.”
It was a thrilling experience for the cadets, said Susan Schwartz, the “officer in charge,” or faculty adviser, of the chorus and the campus Hillel who accompanied the group on the trip.
“They met their commander in chief,” Schwartz said. “Afterwards they were bouncing off the walls.”
“We received a warm reception,” said Allyson Hauptman, an alto in the chorus who is a sophomore double majoring in international law and IT systems. Hauptman, who attended Hebrew school and had a Bat Mitzvah in Philadelphia, felt that seeing such a high level of support of Jewish culture in public was “heartwarming.”
According to Schwartz, the West Point Jewish Chapel Choir has been in existence for more than 60 years, with the most recent White House performance coming six years ago during the presidency of George W. Bush.
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, 60 to 70 cadets identify as Jewish in a total population of 4,500, according to Schwartz.
Part of the group’s mission, the chorus and Hillel adviser said, is to make people aware that there is Jewish life at the school charged with educating the future leaders of the U.S. Army.
In the last year the group has performed at synagogues in Palm Beach, Fla., and Rockville Centre, N.Y., and the Hillel at Yale, as well as at the dedication of the Arlington National Cemetery’s Jewish Chaplains Memorial.
Especially for older Jews who have served in the armed forces, Schwartz has found that the group serves as a point of connection.
The Jewish Chapel Choir is one of several singing groups at West Point, including Protestant, Catholic and gospel, that serve as a form of outreach, showcasing the cadets’ and the institution’s religious diversity.
The choir itself is a diverse group, with Szablowski and other non-Jewish cadets taking part.
“All of these cadets are going to be officers, and they need to become aware of other cadets’ needs,” said Schwartz, who is Jewish and grew up in North Miami, Fla. “There is an expectation that they will respect our traditions.”
“I have learned more about Jewish culture than the beautiful songs,” said Szablowski, who only a few years earlier was the drum major at his high school in a region of California not known for having a large Jewish population. At West Point he sees his fellow choir members as “really just a group of friends.”
“If I have Jewish members in my platoon, I will be able to understand them more,” he said.
The non-Jewish members of the chorus “learn a little bit of Hebrew and Jewish culture through the songs,” Hauptman said.
According to Schwartz, some of the Jewish members, who were more “secular” in their Jewish identification when they first come to West Point, learn a bit, too.
“They find a Jewish home at West Point,” she said.
In addition to the private concert, Obama received a few early Chanukah gifts from the chorus.
The Jewish chaplain at West Point, Rabbi Maj. Shmuel Felzenberg, presented the first family with West Point Jewish Chapel coins.
Additionally the cadets “wanted me to give him one of our kipahs,” said Schwartz, speaking of the gray head covering imprinted with the chorus’ name. The group had the kipah made from the same fabric used for the full dress uniforms they were wearing the day of the party.
According to Schwartz, the president said, “I have several yarmulkes, but none like this one.”
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].)