A colorful handmade wooden menorah stood on a table near the podium from which US President Barack Obama spoke at the White House’s annual Hanukkah party on Wednesday. The menorah was made by the students of Jerusalem’s Max Rayne Hand in Hand School, whose first grade classroom was burned in an arson attack by activists from the extreme Jewish anti-assimilationist group Lehava on November 29.
In his remarks prior to the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, Obama welcomed Moran Ibrahim and Inbar Shaked-Vardi, two ninth graders, along with Rebecca Bardach, a mother from the school, who had traveled to Washington to be at the event.
Obama praised the Hand in Hand students for their resilience following the arson attack, which targeted the school’s efforts at Jewish-Arab coexistence through bilingual and bicultural education.
“In the weeks that followed they…could have succumbed to cynicism and anger, but instead they built this menorah…Each of its branches is dedicated to one of the values their school was founded on. Values like community, and dignity, and equality and peace,” he said.
According to Efrat Meir, the Hand in Hand community organizer for Jerusalem, the US Embassy in Israel asked the school to create a menorah to be lighted at the White House. The staff and students chose to make it out of olive wood, a local Jerusalem material. The branches represent the values of education, friendship, solidarity and freedom, in addition to those mentioned by the president.
The school’s high school students came up with the design concept for the menorah, and the elementary school students painted the values on to the branches—in both Hebrew and Arabic. The kindergartners decorated the menorah’s base with their colorful handprints.
Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the Washington, DC, Jewish Community Center, was moved to see the Hand in Hand menorah. Zawatsky has been to four White House Hanukkah parties, but this was the first time that she had seen such a menorah used.
“It was a real surprise, and it struck a very poignant chord with those of us who were there and saw it,” she said.
While all the menorahs used at the White House have had stories behind them, this one had an unusually immediate one.
“It was a positive and powerful symbol of real-time connectedness to Israel,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.
“The fact that this was a well-crafted symbol shows this White House’s savvy.”
Zawatsky, who has worked in Jewish museums, noticed that the White House curator wore gloves to handle the menorah.
“This elevated the status of this school project made by children to that of the large, ornate menorahs that have been used in the past,” she said.
Obama emphasized that it was not the menorah itself that was valuable, but rather the message that it symbolized.
“Inbar and Moran and their fellow students teach us an important lesson for this time in our history,” he said.
“The light of hope must outlast the fires of hate. That’s what the Hanukkah story teaches us. It’s what our young people can teach us— that one act of faith can make a miracle, that love is stronger than hate, that peace can triumph over conflict.”