Local Luminaries Attend White House Chanukah Events

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President Barack and Michelle Obama celebrated Chanukah at the White House with about 1,000 attendees.

How many menorah-lighting ceremonies does it take to make a White House party?
Sounds like the start of a joke. But in the case of Chanukah 2015, one celebration wasn’t enough for President Barack Obama and wife Michelle. It took two parties and two lighting ceremonies — one in the afternoon and the other at night — to accommodate the invitation-only crowds numbering close to 1,000 in total on Dec. 9.
And while a small segment may have disagreed with the choice of speakers and other logistics, the general feeling was the next-to-last Festival of Lights of the Obama administration was a rousing success.
“I’ve been to the White House several times before, but never to the Chanukah party,” said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of social justice at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was joined at the 4 p.m. party by his wife, Lynne Iser, creator/founder of Elder-Activists.org. “I was at a couple of prayer breakfasts hosted by President Clinton and the signing of peace treaties — it must be 15 years since I’ve been there.”
In reality, it was George W. Bush who originated the White House Chanukah Party in 2001, just a few months after 9/11. Since then its popularity has grown, turning this into a combination political/social event.
The early ceremonies got underway with the president introducing his Israeli counterpart, Reuven Rivlin. “First, President Rivlin spoke for five minutes about Chanukah and the importance of relationships between Israel and the U.S.,” said Liebling, former director of the Reconstructionist Federation. “Also on the importance of peace and inclusion. After he spoke, President Obama spoke for several minutes. He clearly knew well what the holiday was about. He referenced the bravery of the Maccabees and tied it to the ongoing struggle for religious freedom.”
Following the president, St. Louis-based Reform Rabbi Susan Talve delivered a blessing, which some right-wing blogs described as inappropriate for the occasion and with political than religious motivation because of her calls for compassion toward groups like Muslims and homosexuals. According to Liebling, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Lynne and I thought she was wonderful,” declared Liebling. “I didn’t hear one murmur of complaint from anybody and President Rivlin seemed impressed. We were surrounded by a lot of Israelis and they seemed to be totally fine with it. There was nothing offensive.. She’s one of the more prominent rabbis in the country who’s supported Black Lives Matter. That’s why they picked her; they don’t pick people by chance.”
After Talve completed her blessing and Rivlin lit the candles, they began clearing the room to prepare for the evening’s festivities, which got underway at 6:30 p.m. As in the afternoon, the Obamas arrived fashionably late, somewhere around 8 p.m.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of RRC and national leader of the Reconstructionist movement, picks up the play-by-play. “It was very sincere,” said Waxman, who was accompanied by Philadelphian Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “They’re very thoughtful in whom they select to light the candles and what menorah they use. The menorah in the evening was created by a Holocaust survivor. He was in one of the camps but got out through Kindertransport.”
The evening function’s blessing was delivered by Reconstructionist Rabbi Sid Schwartz, the son of two Holocaust survivors, who spoke about religious freedom of all kinds.
For Waxman, this was perhaps the highlight of the evening. “It’s thrilling each and every time I go,” she said. Waxman, who has attended multiple White House lighting ceremonies, said the main difference between the afternoon and evening events is not being rushed out at the latter. “Last year, I had the experience where someone asked me to make a minyan during the afternoon. I had to do the world’s fastest davening. But no matter how many times I go, I find it truly thrilling — and for me, the most exciting thing was that a Reconstructionist rabbi led the lighting blessing.”
Hours earlier, the most exciting thing for Lynne Iser was getting a few moments to speak to the First Lady about another troubling issue. She reminded Mrs. Obama about Darfur refugee Hawa Salih, one of the 2012 recipients of the International Women of Courage Award, who was honored by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the First Lady. She went on to inform the First Lady that Salih was in great fear her brothers who had escaped to Uganda were in danger and ask if the government could intervene.
“When I was in front of the rope line, I shook her hand and thanked her for all she does and told her about Hawa,” explained Iser. “I held her hand for maybe a minute and a half — enough to have a short conversation — until a Secret Service agent came by and took my hand off hers. But she motioned to her aide to get my card, so I hope she’ll follow up.
“My mother was a woman who felt it was important to stand up for what was right. This felt so right and true. When she [Mrs. Obama] remembered Hawa’s name, that opened up the channel.”
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