Hanukkah Comes Early to the Obama White House

— by David Streeter

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the White House’s annual Chanukah party last night that was attended by many prominent Jewish leaders and activists. Vice President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, several Jewish members of Congress, NJDC Chair Marc R. Stanley, NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris, and a number of other NJDC leaders were all among the event’s attendees. Before the party started, Obama remarked to the guests:

Welcome to the White House.  Thank you all for joining us tonight to celebrate Hanukkah-even if we’re doing it a little bit early.

I want to start by recognizing a few folks who are here. The ambassador to the United States from Israel, Michael Oren, is in the house.

We are honored to be joined by one of the justices of the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is here. We are thrilled to see her. She’s one of my favorites … I’ve got a soft spot for Justice Ginsburg.

And we’ve got more than a few members of Congress here and members of my administration in the house, including our new Director of Jewish Outreach, Jarrod Bernstein is here….

I also want to thank the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir-the Voice of Tradition-for their wonderful performance, but more importantly, for their extraordinary service to our country.

And I want to thank all the rabbis and lay leaders who have come far and wide to be here with us today.

Now, as I said, we’re jumping the gun just a little bit. The way I see it, we’re just extending the holiday spirit. We’re stretching it out. But we do have to be careful that your kids don’t start thinking Hanukkah lasts 20 nights instead of eight. That will cause some problems.

This Hanukkah season we remember a story so powerful that we all know it by heart-even us Gentiles. It’s a story of right over might, of faith over doubt. Of a band of believers who rose up and freed their people and discovered that the oil left in their desecrated temple-which should have lasted only one night-ended up lasting eight.

More after the jump.

It’s a timeless story. And for 2,000 years, it has given hope to Jews everywhere who are struggling. And today, it reminds us that miracles come in all shapes and sizes. Because to most people, the miracle of Hanukkah would have looked like nothing more than a simple flame, but the believers in the temple knew it was something else. They knew it was something special.

This year, we have to recognize the miracles in our own lives. Let’s honor the sacrifices our ancestors made so that we might be here today. Let’s think about those who are spending this holiday far away from home-including members of our military who guard our freedom around the world. Let’s extend a hand to those who are in need, and allow the value of tikkun olam to guide our work this holiday season.

This is also a time to be grateful for our friendships, both with each other and between our nations. And that includes, of course, our unshakeable support and commitment to the security of the nation of Israel.

So while it is not yet Hanukkah, let’s give thanks for our blessings, for being together to celebrate this wonderful holiday season. And we never need an excuse for a good party….

So as I look around, I see a whole bunch of good friends. We can’t wait to give you a hug and a kiss and wish you a happy holiday. The guys with whiskers, I won’t give you a kiss.

Thank you very much, everybody.

Haaretz’s Natasha Mozgovaya noted that the party’s traditional kosher Chanukah foods were accompanied by “sushi rolls, caramelized pearl onions, shitake mushrooms, [and] pine nut herb crusted lamb chops.”

White House Pool Report by C. J. Ciaramella

The foyer was adorned in festive winter decorations. President Obama gave his remarks at a podium, next to a menorah with all eight candles lit.

Obama spoke for about four minutes to the group of approximately 550 guests, including many American Jewish community leaders, about the meaning of the Hannukah story.

“This Hannukah season, we remember a story so powerful that we know it by heart … even us gentiles,” Obama said. “A story of right over might, faith over doubt, a story about a band of believers who rose up and freed their people.”

President Obama said the Hannukah story is a reminder that “miracles come in all sizes,” and the holiday season is a time to “recognize the miracles in our own lives.”

“This is also time to be grateful for our friendships, both with each other and between our nations, and that of course includes our unshakable support and commitment to the security of the nation of Israel,” Obama said to applause.

After speaking, Obama left to meet with guests in the Map Room of the White House.

Notable guests included Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, White House Director of Jewish Outreach Jarrod Bernstein and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for whom President Obama said he had a “soft spot.”

Many members of Congress were also present, as was the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir.

Guests were treated to an all-kosher menu including dill and vodka Scottish smoked salmon and roulade of chicken breast. All food was prepared under the strict rabbinical supervision of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Lubavitch Center of Washington (Chabad), in cooperation with the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington.

The menorah for this year’s ceremony was lent by The Jewish Museum, New York and is dedicated to General Joseph T. McNarney, who served as the Commander in Chief of United States Forces in the European Theatre from November 1945 to March 1947.

Four Questions for a Young Israeli Social Entrepreneur

Dyonna Ginsburg
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of Bema'aglei Tzedek ("Circles of Justice"), an Israeli NGO that uses cutting-edge educational tools and social action campaigns to create a more just Israeli society informed and inspired by Jewish values. Upon completing her B.A. in political science at Columbia University, Dyonna Ginsburg made Aliyah in 2002 and obtained an M.A. in Jewish Education from Hebrew University. Dyonna is a frequent guest lecturer and has appeared on Israel's Channel Two TV, Galei Tzahal and Reshet Bet radio.

1. Your mission statement speaks of "empowering the next generation of young Israelis to engage their Jewish identity and become powerful agents of social change." How are you finding the response from young Israelis to you call for action?

The cynics among us point to an Israeli society that is moving away from a collective identity to radical individualism, and lament the bygone days of a pioneering spirit. My experience, however, is very different. On a day to day basis, I encounter hundreds of young Israelis who care deeply about shaping our society and are willing to give of themselves to create better and more just communities. In the early days of the state, we needed pioneers to build the country's physical infrastructure. Nowadays, we need pioneers to build the country's spiritual and ethical infrastructure. Many young Israelis, religious and secular alike, are looking for opportunities to return to their Jewish roots, and in particular to Jewish learning, as a source of inspiration for the pursuit of justice.

More after the jump.
2. Your Tav Chevrati is "a seal of approval granted free of charge to restaurants and other businesses that respect the legally-mandated rights of their employees and are accessible to people with disabilities." Can you describe the typical encounter you have with a business owner when you first raise this issue with them?

The Tav Chevrati has succeeded in reaching a tipping point in Jerusalem, where over a third of restaurants and cafes bear our certificate. In Jerusalem, there is now a waiting list of restaurants who have turned to us and are currently awaiting our approval. For the most part, these restaurants are interested in the Tav Chevrati not because they are more ethical than others; rather, because they understand the economic power of the certificate. As such, it is not really accurate to speak of our "first raising the issue" with restaurant proprietors. Instead, the restaurant owners are the ones who first raise the issue with us. One chef, who is the co-owner of three exclusive restaurants in Jerusalem, recently told us that, even though he doesn't personally connect to the ideas underlying the Tav Chevrati, one out of two of his customers demands to see the Tav Chevrati. In his own words: "If you can't beat them, join them!" This chef-owner, like 90% of the business proprietors who have received the certificate, had to make concrete changes – changes that cost him money – in order to abide by our certificate and its legally-mandated standards.

3. Israelis speak about the divide between the secular and the orthodox communities, but it seems that you work in both worlds, and try to combine them. Can you share the challenges and successes you are experiencing in that effort?

Bema'aglei Tzedek is unique on the Israeli scene, as our staff, volunteers and target populations transcend religious and political lines. I often say with pride that, in the last Knesset elections, every person on staff voted for a different political party. This reflects the true diversity of our activists. And, yet we manage to sit around the same table and find common ground, rallying around issues that should be consensus – fair labor practices, accessibility to people with disabilities, etc. – but all too often are not.

Bema'aglei Tzedek believes that a Jewish State is not just about public ritual observances, such as the fact that there is no public transportation on Shabbat or that Jewish holidays are official state holidays, but that it is also about the ethical fiber of this society – about taking care of the "orphan, widow and stranger in our midst."

4. How can Diaspora Jews be involved in your efforts?

If you ask a typical restaurant proprietor in Jerusalem which is a more important target population – local Israeli customers or the tourist population – the vast majority will respond: tourists. As such, the Tav Chevrati is the one initiative I can think of in which someone, who is visiting Israel, doesn't know a word of Hebrew, and knows little about the culture, can make an even greater impact than an Israeli peer just by buying a cup of coffee and telling the waiter that he or she came because of the Tav Chevrati. Jews from abroad, therefore, have an important role to play in the ultimate success of this homegrown Israeli initiative. For a list of Tav-certified opportunities or to find out other volunteer or donation opportunities, check out our website www.mtzedek.org.il

Reprinted courtesy of Ameinu http://www.ameinu.net