Chanukah at the White House: Timely Reminder of Why America is Special

In addition to serving as the rabbi of The Forest Hills Jewish Center- a position I have held for thirty years- I also currently serve as Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. With some sixteen hundred members world-wide, the RA, as it is known, is a respected and important player on the American Jewish scene and around the world.

It was in my capacity as an officer of the RA that I was invited to attend the annual Chanukah celebration in the White House, hosted this year by President and Mrs. Obama and held last evening.

This was not my first time at a Chanukah celebration in the White House. Actually, that’s not exactly true. My wife and I were guests in the Clinton White House on two separate occasions, both at this season of the year. But those events were referred to as "Holiday Celebrations," and it was clear that they were, essentially, Christmas parties that had a few Jewish invitees. We were, to be sure, delighted to have been invited, and very, very grateful and honored, but we had no illusions about the deeper message of the evenings. We were "the other," the people who were there as guests at someone else’s party. It was a disquieting feeling.

Last night’s celebration, however, was indeed a Chanukah celebration. There was a very public lighting of a Chanukiyah, with all the assembled singing the blessings and Ma’oz Tzur together in the East Room; the food- there was a lot of it, and it was good!- was kosher according to the highest standards; the guest list was a virtual who’s who of prominent Jews in American culture and government; and, of course, there were potato latkes!

President Obama joked that a third of the Supreme Court was there, and I must admit that seeing Justices Breyer and Kagan happily and proudly singing Ma’oz Tzur with Senator Arlen Spector was incredibly moving. Watching Itzhak Pearlman listen intently to the magnificent Marine Corp orchestra playing music by Jewish composers was similarly touching. All around, regardless of whether the assembled rabbis and community leaders agreed with the President on matters of policy both foreign and domestic, there was a sense that we were experiencing a degree of welcome in the highest halls of American leadership that is unique to this most unusual diaspora community. I’m still very much from the "always keep your passport current" school of modern Jewish life, but in what White House employees call "the people’s house," the assembled Jews were absolutely a part of "we the people." And it felt very, very good to be reminded of that.

As I approached the Obamas to have my picture taken with them by the White House photographer, I said to the President that my late parents, both first generation Americans, would never have allowed themselves to even fantasize that their son would be an invited guest at a White House function, and get to meet and greet the President and First Lady. President Obama looked me straight in the eye and, without missing a beat, said "Hey, that’s what America is all about, isn’t it? Look at me!" They couldn’t have been more gracious at the end of a very long evening- one I’ll not soon forget.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.