It was the day before the lighting of the first Hanukkah candle and Rabbi Israel Meir Lau offered a story appropriate for the season. A father in Eastern Europe, who wanted to spare his son from a life of oppression and persecution, sent him to a new country, Brooklyn.

“Here, there is no future for you,” the father said. “There, maybe.”

The young man arrived in the new world 244 years ago. He volunteered to join forces fighting for independence and freedom at Valley Forge. Many were killed that day. This was the first night of Chanukah. He remembered what his father told him: “Wherever you go, remember you are a Jew.”

Out of his bag he took a menorah and siddur. He laid on the ground and watched the two candles flicker in the dark.

Suddenly someone barked, “Soldier, what are you doing? Don’t you know the enemy can see you?”

He raised his head and met the eyes of George Washington. “Extinguish that light!” the general ordered. “What is this candle?”

“I am a Jew,” the soldier said. “Tonight is the holiday of Chanukah. We celebrate a great victory of my ancestors over the Greek oppressors in the land of Israel. General, I pray we will celebrate with you a great victory over our oppressors in this land.”

As he turned to leave, the general said, “You are the descendant of the prophets of the Bible. Give me your name and address and please bless me.”

Years later, the soldier was home kindling the same Chanukah menorah in the window. There was a knock on the door. It was the general, only now he was the president. He placed a gold medal around the neck of the soldier. It was inscribed “In memory of your candle that illuminated my way.”

“I am not an American but I know your history,” Rabbi Lau said at the American Friends of the Open University of Israel (AFOU) gala on Dec. 11 at the Pierre Hotel on the Upper East Side.

Ingeborg Rennert and daughter Nina Rennert Davidson at Open University gala. Photo by Tim Boxer

Following this lesson in American history, Lau, who served 10 years as chief rabbi of Israel, received the Yigal Alon Award from AFOU president Ingeborg Rennert and chairman Naomi Hass-Perlman. Board member Bernice Schwartz presented the Tzedek Award to Donald Tober, chairman of Sugar Foods Corp., and wife Barbara Tober, president of Acronym Inc., which funds educational arts projects for children among other initiatives.

“In these auspicious times,” Rennert said, “when the president of the United States declares Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, it is humbling to witness a graduation of the Open University — the coming together of Jews, Druze, Muslims and haredim — that fulfills the promise that all Israeli citizens can enjoy the benefits of an education.”

Among the dinner guests were Ronald Lauder, World Jewish Congress president; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Israel Consul General Dani Dayan; and Hadassah Lieberman.