Opening Event 2023 Recap

The Story of Opening Event 2023

Sarah Hurwitz, accomplished speechwriter and Opening Event speaker, advises that a compelling story is best when you "show, don't tell", so...

Dressed in a black sweaterdress on a day that began and ended with fall-like temperatures, with a hint of summer peeking out in the middle, Sarah Hurwitz took the stage at NCJW/Essex’s 2023 Opening Event ready to share her journey from a “bat-mitzvah and done” Jewish girl to speechwriter for some of the most compelling figures in recent Democratic politics including former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama to the gray armchair where she herself was the speaker talking about her Judaism and what it means to be a good person. 

Across from her sat Lesley Greenstein, radiant in red with a pile of notecards in her lap. In front of her sitting in gold-spindled ballroom chairs were nearly 200 NCJW/Essex members and friends who had come to hear her story. 

This chapter began with an introduction to Judaism class at a local JCC. Fresh from her desk in the White House and a few other life changes, Sarah rediscovered her Judaism in her own backyard, and she liked what she found. 

“It could have been karate. It could have been ceramics. But, it turned out to be an introduction to 4,000 years of wisdom on what it means to be a good person,” she shared. “It is about the love and the pride of being part of this tradition.” 

When asked about the rise in antisemitism happening across the United States, especially on college campuses, Sarah’s response was it is “disheartening, and frankly boring” to see that the same “neural grooves that have been drilled into the world’s psyche” for more than 2000 years are still at play. 

Her antidote: Be a Powerful Jew.

That means leaning into your Jewish identity in ways that matter. It is more than “I like kugel,” she quipped. It is more than saying “I remember the Holocaust, and yes, never again,” she reminded us. It is so much more. 

She talked about being created in G-d’s image – and how so much or the world sees G-d as a male figure somewhere up in the sky. Putting aside the gender-based assumptions inherent with that view, the Jewish approach is so far beyond what our brains can contain. 

While Christianity professes to be about love and Judaism about laws, perhaps, she said, the opposite is true. Judaism teaches us to see people as individuals and as equals. We see that in practice in our daily work with Center for Women clients and at the Back 2 School Store and with each Mitzvah-in-a-Minute and so much more. G-d is unknowable and ineffable, and in all of us. 

Throughout the conversation, Sarah offered glimpses of what it was like to spend each day working for the leader of the free world. One of her most terrifying – and memorable – days as a speechwriter for President Obama involved a college commencement address. 

A draft submitted more than a week prior with no feedback led Sarah to think, “all is good.” That was until a call from the Oval Office bolted her out of bed, straight to see the president, hair in a messy bun, laptop at the ready, and he said, “this isn’t the speech I want to give today.”  

A frantic re-write throughout the day while on Marine One (with an admonishment from President Obama to take in the view), on Air Force One and in various motorcades led to an exhausted speechwriter. On the plane home after the event, the president stopped by her seat with a compliment: “that was a good speech!”

The takeaways for Sarah were twofold and apply in so many of life’s stressful situations.

1)     When walking a tightrope between two buildings, look ahead, not down.

2)     Sometimes, you need to give yourself permission to surrender control.

The sighs and applause from all corners of the room meant she was definitely on to something! 

This conversation at Opening Event took place with the backdrop of the Hamas attacks on Israel earlier this month, desperate efforts to free the hostages, and the realization that the world has become a much more heartbreaking and frightening place for Jews near and far. In her remarks, NCJW/Essex President Jennie Goldsmith Rothman stood tall at the podium and was clear: we stand with Israel.

Jennie set the foundation for the evening by reminding us, as she often does, that our Jewish rituals (and the Jewish values that inspire NCJW/Essex’s mission) show the world what Jewish tradition compels us to do: recognize the divinity and dignity in each human being, seek understanding through education and seek justice through action. 

Opening Event was made possible thanks to the generous support of Ellen and Donald Legow. Susie Botwinick and Grace Sumka, co-chairs of this year’s Opening Event, mingled among attendees, all while making sure everyone had delicious food and drink in their hands and knew where to be. Vice President of Programming Robin Kollin led with her usual confidence and opened the meeting with words that summed up what we felt and that serve to close this story as well

Robin shared a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong woman and leading voice at another time of great conflict: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” That is a fitting and apt description of NCJW/Essex. We come together to make change through policy. We come together to learn. We come together to transform lives and make this a better, more just world for women, children and families.

We come together to get things done.

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