President Barack Obama hosted President Reuven Rivlin Wednesday evening for a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony, one of two official parties for the festival being held this year at the White House. Michelle Obama and Nechama Rivlin also attended.
The East Room of the White House was packed with Hannukah celebrants for the ceremony. Obama said he had been deeply moved Rivlin’s “expressions of commitment to equality and justice” when they spoke in the Oval Office earlier in the day. “Rivlin is a strong voice for equal treatment of all citizens of Israel and greater understanding between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Obama.
Obama also noted that at last year’s Hannukah celebration, the White House celebrated Alan Gross’s return from Cuba, where he had been held by the Cuban government. This year Gross was in attendance. “We are happy to have him home here today at the White House,” Obama said.
“All of us come together, along with Jews around the world, to celebrate a band of Maccabees who inspire us even today,” said Obama.
“They were outnumbered. They were out-armed. And yet they proved that freedom can prevail over tyranny. Hope can triumph over despair. Light can prevail over darkness. That sounds like a description of the new “Star Wars” movie. But this one happened a little earlier.”
Added the president: “The light from one day’s worth of oil has lasted not just for eight days, but for more than 2,000 years. The Maccabees’ sense of faith and courage and righteousness continue to animate the Jewish community even now. It’s no accident that when we’re called out to speak on behalf of refugees or against religious persecution, American Jews remember what it was like to be a stranger, and are leading the way. And even as we draw from the best of our traditions, we’re never afraid to build on what came before and to forge a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”
Rivlin spoke of the Macabees of the Hannukah story and how they “fought for liberty, for freedom of religion, for their traditions, for our traditions, for their ability to celebrate their own identity. Hannukah is the holy day of spiritual activism. It is a holiday which represents the spirit of human beings, created equally in the image of God.”
Said Rivlin: “It is not easy to be away from your family — from our children and our grandchildren — to be away from Israel, or from the wonderful city of Jerusalem, especially at Hanukkah. But they told me that the latkes and the donuts would be worth coming all the way for, so here we are, standing here next to the menorah.”
Today, he went on, “we see around the world terrible crimes, and the danger to humanity — (from) a lack of respect, freedom of faith, freedom of religion… We should be like the Hanukkah candles and follow the path of progression… Today, we are all looking for strong and clear moral leadership of the kind you represent, President Obama: leadership committed to the safety of its people to the opportunity and the dignity of every human being. I would like to light this candle, this little flame, with a prayer and hope that one day, religious, cultural and moral liberty will be enjoyed without question by each and every person in the world. Hanukkah Sameach. Happy Hanukkah! And to the Christian people all over the world, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!”
Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri offered up a lengthy and spirited speech, which included references to Ferguson, the need to get “guns off our streets”, and to “clean up the fires of toxic nuclear waste that are threatening our lives in St. Louis and across the country.” She then led the blessing.
It fell to Rivlin to light the Hannukah candles. He he had a little problem sparking the lighter, but Obama stepped into help him.
The menorah used was the Bezalel Jerusalem Menorah, from the Judaic Art Gallery of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the White House said. “The menorah was made in Israel during the 1920s by a pioneer designer, Ze’ev Raban, who trained in Europe and blended European, Jewish and Palestinian Arab design elements to create a new aesthetic for Jewish art in what would become the State of Israel. This design elements of this menorah underscore a theme of coexistence, and its presence in the collection of the Judaic Art Gallery in North Carolina highlights the ties between American Jews and Israeli Jews and the vibrancy of Jewish life in the American South,” the White House said.
Last month, the White House put out a call to the public for unique and special menorahs to be used during today’s Hanukkah receptions. This menorah was selected from that pool of submissions.
In a Thursday afternoon meeting before the lighting, Rivlin compared Obama to the shamash – the “helper” candle in a Hanukkah menorah which is used to light all the other candles.
“We know, Mr. President, that you have lit the candle for the last seven years to show the right way for your people, and for the entire world, and we are very sure that the eighth candle that you will light in the next year will be same, and show the whole world how to fight what we should not accept,” he said.
Before departing Israel for the US on Tuesday morning, Rivlin said he normally made a point of spending festivals in Israel but was pleased he would be sharing the celebration with friends.
“I have always celebrated Hanukkah together with my family and grandchildren, but if I must be away, I am pleased that it will be in the USA, alongside our strongest and closest ally,” he said.
Rivlin will take part in another Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony with UN ambassadors before returning to Israel Sunday.