October 20, 2018

Reflections on the White House: Reclaiming radical moderation

This past week, I was privileged to attend the White House’s annual Chanukah Party together with our principal Noam Weissman.  For those who have attended, you know that the experience, from start to finish, is nothing short of surreal.  One can only stand back and drink in the scene as everyone from senators to supreme court justices, rabbis and representatives (of the House, that is), gather to mark our festival of lights in the most famous residence on the planet.

As you can imagine, there were many highlights over the course of the day. Reb Noam and I were thrilled to run into Alexa Fishman, a Shalhevet alum, who sang at the event as part of Princeton’s Jewish a cappella group.  And I would be remiss without mentioning the delicious kosher cuisine, specifically the kosher lamb chops. (Legend has it that Barbara Bush first brought kosher food to the White House when she saw some folks standing around and not eating at the party.) I toyed with the idea of filming an impromptu Kosher Korner episode live from the White House – Reb Noam promptly (and wisely) shut me down.  

Of course, merely catching a glimpse of the President of the United States in person was an unforgettable experience unto itself. Whether you love him or not, President Obama’s regality and charisma cannot be denied.  Listening to him speak was an almost spiritual experience.  

The most memorable moment, however, happened after much of the hubbub had subsided, as many prepared to catch their trains and planes back home, and a few gathered in the “Red Room” for mincha.   Now, I am far from the first to remark on the inimitable experience of davening in the White House, with millennia of Jewish history racing through one’s mind and a newfound appreciation of the very notion of malchus (kingship) pounding at one’s heart.  Kavanah, usually hard to come by, suddenly comes in droves.

This particular White House mincha, however, was different.  The leader of the minyan was none other than Elisha Wiesel, who assembled a minyan in order to say kaddish in memory of his father – the great Jewish hero Eli Wiesel.  Standing there, I could not help but conjure this legendary man. Just moments before, President Obama, who famously enjoyed a close relationship with Wiesel, noted that the menorah they used at the White House this year was made by his granddaughter at Hebrew school. 

The President told a story recounted by Wiesel from his time in the camps.  On Chanukah, one of the Jews traded his daily food ration for the material to create makeshift candles.  

“Are you crazy!?,” someone said to him. “You’re making Chanukah candles in Auschwitz?!”  

“Yes,” the man responded. “Davka in Auschwitz we must make candles.”  

One needn’t search too hard to identify the overwhelming relevance of Elie Wiesel’s transcendent message for all of us in this moment.  We live in a dark and divisive time, and everyone feels it.  Many have proclaimed hopelessness, as though we may never claw our way out of the fear and anxiety which envelops us, in the United States, in Israel, in Syria, and beyond. 

Elie Wiesel’s words reminded us – as they always have – that it’s precisely in those moments that we must reach out of that darkness.  We reach for our candles, yes, to spark that light that will banish the shadows.  But we must also reach out further – we must reach out and grab hold of each other. 

The evening before I visited the White House, I took part in a panel discussion on “Trump’s America.” Different opinions were expressed from across the political spectrum (although some were frustrated that there wasn’t a “strong right-wing presence”).  What I enjoyed most from the event was not the opportunity to get on a soapbox and hammer away at my point – it was the opportunity really engage with the panelists. 

In particular, Rabbi Sharon Brous and I differed on many points.  But that's okay.  We were able to talk to each other, to learn from each other.  In fact, we were on the very same plane to Washington D.C. after the event, and we continued our conversation then in a productive way, each drawing clarity and strength from the process.

We need to reach out to each other, talk to each other, and feel confident enough in our own positions to maintain camaraderie while we disagree. I made the points that our society finds a misplaced sense of comfort in the extremes, because we feel “at least broadly they agree with us!” This approach which has gotten us nowhere. 

It is time to do the opposite. Instead of turning to the margins, let’s turn towards the center and reach across the aisle instead of embracing the seeming comfort of the extremes (on the right and on the left).  We must regain what I call a “radical moderation.” We must regain our humanity, and defend it at all costs. We can lose an election or an argument, but we can’t lose our humanity

As I picked my eyes up from my iPhone siddur and glanced around the room, I noticed every type of Jew represented in that minyan.  Jews who may otherwise disagree considerably with each other. But we all knew that in this moment, in this surreal moment that we stood in the East Room of the White House, with Elie Wiesel’s son at the helm of our minyan, those differences did nothing to diminish the love and camaraderie we felt for each other. 

This Chanukah, let’s find that love and camaraderie once more.

Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School.