This Hanukkah season, Jay and Kim Lewis of Overland Park are making gifts of cocktail napkins, paper hand towels and coffee cups.
Not just any paper products — these come stamped with the Seal of the President of the United States.
They are the artifacts of their invitation to attend President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s final Hanukkah celebration and the “wonderfully mysterious” experience of a White House party, Jay Lewis said.
For 15 years Lewis has led the Hillel campus Jewish student program at the University of Kansas, growing it and helping it make KU what it calls “a destination school for Jewish students from all over the country.”
The unexpected reward that came his way found him and his wife standing within 10 feet of Barack and Michelle Obama as the first couple spoke to several hundred guests in the East Wing Dec. 14.
Jay Lewis shook hands with Michelle Obama. He stood next to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“This is so far out of anyone’s experience we’ve had or anyone we come in contact with,” he said.
So pardon them for pocketing all the souvenirs. They’re only paper.
“Nothing the Secret Service is chasing after us for,” he said Monday.
It has been — and continues to be — an emotional journey for the Lewises.
It reminds Jay Lewis where he’s come from. Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, annually receives invitations to the annual Hanukkah celebration at the White House, and picks one of their campus program directors and a guest to join in the honor.
Lewis said he is thankful for the work of the KU Hillel chapter’s board and the many student leaders that brought the program this attention.
It reminds him where the world is now.
It’s been a difficult political season, he said. To be able to go now, as the Obamas are leaving, left his wife in tears, he said, when the email invitation Hillel told them to watch for arrived.
“We live in a divisive time,” Lewis said, and they both felt “strong passion and admiration for all that the Obamas have done.”
And it’s an experience Lewis will carry with him as he makes his annual journey with student leaders to Israel in early January, and with the campus work back at KU.
They listened as the president made his remarks on the lesson of the ancient Maccabees, who inspired the Hannukah holiday.
“We teach our children,” Obama said, “that even in our darkest moments, a stubborn flame of hope flickers and miracles are possible.”
The purpose of his coming trip with the students is to build new leaders who have deeper understanding of the world and the opportunities and challenges ahead.
To be able to carry his White House experience with him is “an affirmation,” he said, “a renewed sense” to the work of “making this country a better place.”