Celebrating Chanukah at the White House

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This year's Chanukah parties at the White House took on added meaning, coming on the day that Alan Gross was released from Cuba. 

President Barack Obama used the occasion of the annual White House Chanukah party to publicly rejoice in the release of Alan Gross, the Jewish contractor with an American aid organization who had been held in a Cuban jail for five years.

“He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Chanukah,” said the president. “And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community." 

He lauded Gross as “a man of deep faith” who was arrested by Cuban authorities simply “for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet.”

It was a fitting and moving moment — received with sustained applause — to culminate the excitement that buzzed through the White House on Wednesday afternoon, during the first of two Chanukah receptions the White House hosted that day.  

Being at the party, it was hard not to contrast Jewish communities in Cuba and elsewhere with that of American Jewry, whose prominent role in society and access to the halls of power is not only unprecedented in our history but also should not be taken for granted. 

I was honored to be among some 500 people milling around the hallowed halls of the White House, marveling at the glamor, the historic portraits — and yes, even the spectacular Christmas decorations, which I normally, truth be told, draw little pleasure from.

The guests included a cross-section of our multifaceted American Jewish community. Black hat haredim mingled with young political activists. Young and old, they came from all over the country and from all different points on the religious spectrum.

Philadelphia had a strong presence, with at least a dozen community members spotted among the crowd as we schmoozed and ate from a lavish spread of kosher foods. (Check out the accompanying slide show to see who was there. If I missed you, send me your photos to add!)

The invitees also included a group of Israeli students from the Bronfman Fellows program, and separately, two ninth-graders from Hand-in-Hand, a school in Jerusalem with Jewish and Arab students that hit by arsonists last month.

The two students, one Jewish and one Arab, lit the Chanukiyah that their own peers had made. It was one of four menorahs from Israel displayed in the White House.

Obama used the menorah — whose branches symbolized different values like community, equality and peace — to send his own message of hope.

He said the students “teach us a critical lesson for this time in our history: The light of hope must outlast the fires of hate. That’s what the Chanukah story teaches us. That’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. And during this Festival of Lights, let’s commit ourselves to making some small miracles ourselves and then sharing them with the world.”

With politics the furthest thing from our minds at that moment, it was a message to which we could all say: “Amen.”  

Lisa Hostein is the executive editor of the Jewish Exponent.

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