By Ben Tinsley
WASHINGTON — For several Dallas-area Jewish community leaders who attended the Hanukkah parties sponsored by the White House last week, it was amazing to watch President Reuven Rivlin of Israel light a menorah alongside President Barack Obama.
“The president of Israel lighting menorah candles in the presence of the most powerful person on the face of the Earth — you have to understand the implications of that in terms of Jewish history,” said Rabbi William Gershon, senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel and president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. “And to be there to witness it? … In terms of Jewish history, it is a remarkable thing,”
Marc R. Stanley, immediate past chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council and an Obama appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, also marveled at the historical implications of the menorah lighting.
“That was an amazing honor,” Stanley said.
Rabbi Gershon, who was there with his wife, Raquel, attended the first of two receptions that day. He was one of Dallas-area Jewish officials — among hundreds of others from across the country — invited to the White House Hanukkah receptions Wednesday, Dec. 9.
In addition to Rabbi Gershon and Stanley, Dallas guests included Lillian Pinkus, president-elect of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC, and Shirley Davidoff, board chair of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
“Every year they hold two parties because there are so many people who were invited to attend,” Rabbi Gershon said. “… When you think about what it was like in the 1940s, the Jewish community couldn’t even get in to the White House.”
Because there were two receptions held — at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. that day — there subsequently were two menorahs.
There was a completely kosher menu and White House officials went out of their way to make the Jewish guests comfortable, the guests said. The rabbi estimated there were many hundreds of people waiting in line to get in to the first party — the one he attended.
Rabbi Gershon and Lillian Pinkus attended the first event in the East Room of the White House during which President Rivlin of Israel and his wife, Nechama, lit the menorah.
Stanley and Davidoff attended the second party.
The previous month, the White House had issued a call for special menorahs for the receptions asking, “What’s the story behind your menorah?” As many as 54 submissions were received from around the country.
This menorah for the first reception came from the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Judaic Art Gallery.
It was made in Israel in the 1920s by pioneer designer Ze’ev Raban. Its design elements underscore a theme of coexistence. Its presence in the art gallery highlights both the ties between American and Israeli Jews and the vibrancy of Jewish life in the American South, according to information provided by the White House.
In a brief text message statement, Pinkus said she and her husband, Jon, thoroughly enjoyed attending.
“I can say, as the daughter of immigrants, it was an extraordinary feeling to be celebrating Hanukkah and enjoying kosher food at the White House,” Pinkus said. “To be there with my husband while the president of Israel was welcomed by our president, added special meaning to the occasion.”
Rabbi Gershon said the lighting of the menorah lent gravity to the special relationship between the United States and Israel.
The second menorah for the second party was created by Erwin Thieberger, a Holocaust survivor who was a refugee to the United States after World War II. He was a prisoner in the death camps of Auschwitz. While there, he created menorahs from cement nails and solder, according to the White House.
After the war, Thieberger continued to make menorahs from similar materials to create a living reminder of Hanukkah — as well as the fight of the Jews for freedom and survival. The Leidman-Golub family of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Indiana, Pennsylvania, owns it.
Manfred Lindenbaum, also a Holocaust survivor, lit the second menorah. Lindenbaum’s sister and parents died at Auschwitz. He was deported to Poland, but escaped to England with his brother via the Kindertransport.
At the reception, Lindenbaum was joined at the candle lighting by his granddaughter Lauren Lindenbaum.
Shirley Davidoff said she brought her 26-year-old son Jeremy with her to the second event.
“I had the joy of knowing my son was at the White House Hanukkah party and that he would be able to tell his children he was there and shook hands with the president,” she said. “That was wonderful.”
The second party was made notable by the presence of Jewish Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Being there was unreal, Davidoff said.
“When you get there you think, ‘I can’t believe I am in the White House — as a Dallas Jew or a Jewish individual,’” Davidoff said. “Being in the White House is just surreal. You have to go through several security measures to make it in. First they check IDs, then there’s a K-9 sniffing dog, then an airport conveyor belt and another security area.”
Davidoff said at the second party President Obama talked about the history of the Jews. The crowd said blessings as the menorah was lit. Every aspect of Jewish life was represented, she said.
“This was an impressive combination of Jewish religion, tradition, celebration, all in one culture, and it was really just fascinating,” she said.
Marc R. Stanley said he has been to this party every year since President Obama first was elected.
In addition to public officials and Jewish officials, there are also many celebrities who attend. Last year, Stanley said he got to speak with comedian, writer, actor and television producer Larry David.
“I think it’s an amazing tribute to the Jewish community that the president shuts down the White House the day before and ‘kosher-izes’ it, makes it kosher, to hold the two Hanukkah parties,” Stanley said. “The president wants to honor so many people he can’t do it in one party.”
Stanley said this party provides Jewish officials from across the country the once-a-year opportunity to meet and greet one another.
“It’s like no other forum I’ve been to,” he said.
Stanley said the Jewish members of the Supreme Court were there as they are every year, having a great time and engaging with others in the crowd.
“They come every year — they’re delightful,” he said. “They have to come to this one because they work all day.”
Stanley said he believes one of the biggest changes he noticed at the party was that certain acrimonies between President Obama and the Jewish community seemed to no longer exist.
“I think we’re past all the controversy with Iran,” he said. “People at the party were upbeat about the president and the president was upbeat about the Jewish community — and, of course, the importance of Hanukkah.”