August 23, 2019

Hanukkah in the White House

Today, on the 8th and final day of Hanukkah, I find myself in the most unlikely of places celebrating Hanukkah: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., otherwise known as The White House. I was surprised and honored to receive an invitation from President Obama to this year’s Hanukkah reception. Surprised, because an invitation to the White House from the President is not what you normally find in your inbox when you check your e-mails. Honored, because…well, that’s obvious.

What isn’t so obvious is Jews in the White House. Many of us today take for granted that Jews are power brokers in Washington. With Jews often forming a core of many recent presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat, the idea of Jews in the White House seems like no big deal. The sight of Jewish senators and members of Congress, or as senior aides and advisors to presidents, is a reality that seems like a given to most of us. Some in the Jewish community celebrate that we “have finally arrived” in this country, and others are still uncomfortable with what they call “too much Jewish power and influence.” Be it as it may, Jews – a tiny, miniscule population on earth, and a numerical minority in the U.S. – wield much political influence in this great country. Since it wasn’t that way in the U.S. less than 100 years ago, what happened? What changed?

The answer has nothing to do with any wealth or power American Jews have achieved, rather with a tiny dot on the map in the Middle East. In 1948, when the Jewish people declared independence in their own historic homeland for the first time since the Maccabees ruled Israel, things began to change for Jews – in Israel, and all over the world, including in the U.S. With our own Jewish state, our own economy, our own government, and, perhaps most importantly after the Holocaust, our own military forces for the first time since the Maccabees, the Jewish people entered a new era. No matter where we lived, we felt proud and protected. Even in the oppressive Soviet Union, the “refuseniks” and “Prisoners of Zion” drew strength and inspiration from the existence of the State of Israel. In fact, it was only due to the existence of Israel that American Jews felt strong enough to mobilize the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement that ultimately led to the release of Soviet Jews. Study the status of American Jewry during the Holocaust, and then from the 1950’s onward. What changed is not our economic success, but our confidence to assert ourselves as Jews – all thanks to Israel.

It is more than symbolic that Jews are welcomed into the White House specifically to celebrate Hanukkah, for it is only because the revival of the spirit of the Maccabees some 65 years ago that such a celebration can take place there today. As I step into the most famous home in the world, and am greeted by the most powerful man on earth, I do so with full awareness that a strong Israel is the reason why this can happen. On behalf of my daughter Shira who accompanies me today, and on behalf of all the guests today, we thank President Obama for this gracious invitation…but our ultimate thanks goes to Israel and the IDF, and to God , who has given us the privilege of living in an era where we witnessed and continue to experience the modern-day Hanukkah miracle: a renewed Jewish homeland.

Am Yisrael Chai.