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.

Hannukah at the White House

Remarks by President Barack Obama

Welcome to the White House.  I want to thank all of you for joining us in celebrating the second night of Hanukkah.  Happy Hanukkah, everybody.  (Applause.)

     We are joined tonight by Ambassador Michael Oren, of Israel.  Where’s Michael?  (Applause.)  He’s way back there.  And so I want to begin by offering our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all of those who’ve died as a result of the terrible forest fire in northern Israel.

More after the jump.
  As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster.  A short while ago, our ambassador in Tel Aviv, Jim Cunningham, issued a disaster declaration, which has launched an effort across the U.S. government to identify the firefighting assistance we have available and provide it to Israel as quickly as possible.  Of course, that’s what friends do for each other.

     And, Mr. Ambassador, our thoughts and prayers are with everybody in Israel who is affected by this tragedy and the family and loved ones of those in harm’s way.

     Tonight, it’s an honor to welcome so many friends and leaders from the Jewish community and beyond.  And I want to start by recognizing my Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, George Mitchell, who is here.  Please give him a round of applause.  (Applause.)  And all the other outstanding members of the diplomatic corps who are here.

     One third of the Supreme Court is here.  (Applause.) One of my favorites, Justice Ginsburg, is hiding out here in the front.  (Laughter.)  She really is here.  It’s hard to see.  (Laughter.)

     Justice Breyer is here.  And — where’s Justice Breyer?  There he is — right here.  (Applause.)   And our newest addition and former colleague of mine when we were teaching together, Elena Kagan is in the house.  (Applause.)

     I want to also acknowledge somebody who I rely on day in, day out, who is not only a great Vice President, but is also — (laughter) — one of my dearest friends; Joe Biden is in the house.  (Applause.)

     And to all the members of the administration, and members of Congress, and all the state and local leaders who are with us today, welcome.

     I want to thank Joshua Redman for gracing us with his talent and helping us with the music.  (Applause.)

     And finally, I want to thank the rabbis and lay leaders who have traveled from all over the country to be here.  Yes, you can give yourselves a round of applause.  (Applause.)

     Now, tonight, we gather to celebrate a story as simple as it is timeless.  It’s a story of ancient Israel, suffering under the yoke of empire, where Jews were forbidden to practice their religion openly, and the Holy Temple — including the holy of holies — had been desecrated.

     It was then that a small band of believers, led by Judah Maccabee, rose up to take back their city and free their people.  And when the Maccabees entered the temple, the oil that should have lasted for a single night ended up burning for eight.

     That miracle gave hope to all those who had been struggling in despair.  And in the 2,000 years since, in every corner of the world, the tiny candles of Hanukkah have reminded us of the importance of faith and perseverance.  They have illuminated a path for us when the way forward was shrouded in darkness.

     And as we prepare to light another candle on the menorah, let us remember the sacrifices that others have made so that we may all be free.  Let us pray for the members of our military who guard that freedom every day, and who may be spending this holiday far away from home.

     Let us also think of those for whom these candles represent not just a triumph of the past, but also hope for the future — the men, women and children of all faiths who still suffer under tyranny and oppression.

     That’s why families everywhere are taught to place the menorah in public view, so the entire world can see its light.  Because, as the Talmud teaches us, “So long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.”

     Now, the menorah we’re using tonight, and the family who — who is going to help us light it, both stand as powerful symbols of that faith.

     This beautiful menorah has been generously loaned to us by Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans.  (Applause.)  Five years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit, the synagogue was covered in eight feet of water.   Later, as the cleanup crew dug through the rubble, they discovered this menorah, caked in dirt and mold.  And today it stands as a reminder of the tragedy and a source of inspiration for the future.

     And that feeling is shared by Susan Retik.  It’s a feeling they know all too well.  After her husband, David, was killed on September 11th, Susan could have easily lost herself in feelings of hopelessness and grief.  But instead, she turned her personal loss into a humanitarian mission — co-founding “Beyond the 11th,” a group that reaches out to Afghan widows facing their own struggles.

     So on this second night of Hanukkah, let us give thanks to the blessings that all of us enjoy.  Let us be mindful of those who need our prayers.  And let us draw strength from the words of a great philosopher, who said that a miracle is “a confirmation of what is possible.”

     And now I’d like to turn it over to Susan, who by the way has been on this stage before, receiving a presidential award for her outstanding work.  But she happens to be joined by a beautiful family — Donald, Ben, Molly, Dina and Rebecca.  (Laughter.)  Rebecca is down here.  So I want to turn — there she is.  Yes, she is adorable.  (Laughter.)  As Michelle — (Laughter.)  As Michelle said as we were getting on stage, she will be stealing the show.  (Laughter.)  So we’re going to turn it over to Susan and her family for the blessings.

     (The blessings are offered.)

      So happy Hanukkah to all of you.  We’re going to see most of you downstairs.  Be patient in the line.  (Laughter.)  And I just want to let everybody know that, yes, they will be able to Photoshop my lip for the picture.  (Laughter.)  Happy Hanukkah, everybody.  (Applause.)