Blog Posts Related to the American Jewish Community

  • Hanukkah at the White House 2013/5774

    On Thursday, December 5, the President and Mrs. Obama welcomed members of the American Jewish community to the White House to celebrate Hanukkah.  They hosted two receptions in the Grand Foyer of the White House.  Guests included leaders from a broad range of national and local Jewish organizations; Supreme Court Justices; Administration officials; Members of Congress; leaders from the religious community,  representing an array of denominations and organizations; athletes; actors; academics; musicians; authors; journalists; and other community stakeholders.  The U.S. Marine Band, America’s oldest continuously active professional music organization, known as “the President’s own,” performed in the East Room.

    At both receptions, the food preparation occurred under the strict rabbinical supervision of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Lubavitch Center of Washington (Chabad), in cooperation with the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington.  Watch this remarkable still-camera video that captures the koshering of the White House kitchen.  

    Afternoon Hanukkah Reception

    At the afternoon reception, arriving guests were welcomed into the White House to the sounds of Zemer Chai (“living song”), a choir of 30 singers from the Washington, DC metropolitan area dedicated to sharing the rich and diverse musical heritage of the Jewish people. Founded in 1976, the choir sings the full range of the Jewish repertoire.

    The President and Mrs. Obama joined guests for the ceremonial candlelighting program as the eighth day of Hanukkah was drawing to a close.  The President made remarks, recognizing the creators of “Thanksgivukkah” and the 10-year-old inventor of the “Menurkey,” created because of the intersection this year of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving.  He then invited a military chaplain, Rabbi Amanda Lurer to recite an appropriate blessing to remind the gathering and the world of the meaning of this holiday.  Rabbi Lurer serves in the U.S. Navy and recently returned from a nine-month deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

    Following the blessing, Lainey and Kylie Schmitter, ages 8 and 4, respectively, lit the candles with a little help from their mom, Drew Schmitter.  A military family, Lainey’s and Kylie’s Dad, Jacob Schmitter, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy currently on his fifth deployment to a forward operating base in Afghanistan. 

    The Menorah

    President Barack Obama holds up Kylie Schmitter as she and her sister Lainey Schmitter light the menorah during the Hanukkah reception

    President Barack Obama holds up Kylie Schmitter as she and her sister Lainey Schmitter light the menorah during the Hanukkah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Dec. 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

    The Schmitters lit Manfred Anson’s Statue of Liberty Menorah, which pays tribute to the promise of America for Jews who have emigrated here to find new opportunity and, in many cases, rebuild their lives.  In 1986, to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, Anson created the Statue of Liberty Menorah, taking the design of a century-old Polish seven-branched menorah and adapting it for Hanukkah.  He used a Statue of Liberty statuette for each branch of the menorah, transforming Lady Liberty’s torch of freedom into the candleholder for each night of Hanukkah and for the service candle.   Also, he inscribed important events in Jewish history – from the Exodus from Egypt to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel –onto the base of each statuette and crowned the menorah with the American bald eagle.  The Statue of Liberty Menorah being used this year at the White House was cast from the original mold in 2011 at the request of Dr. Aaron Feingold, who donated it to the National Museum of American Jewish History.  

    Evening Hanukkah Reception

    At the evening Hanukkah Reception, guests were treated to the sounds of Pizmon, the coed Jewish a cappella group of Columbia University, Barnard College, and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  Pizmon (Hebrew for the chorus of a song), performing Jewish music as a source of inspiration and community outreach, was founded in 1987 and is the first collegiate Jewish a cappella group. 

    The President and Mrs. Obama joined guests in the Grand Foyer for remarks and a candlelighting program.  On a serious note, President Obama noted the passing, a few hours earlier, of former South African President Nelson Mandela.  He spoke of Hanukkah as “a story of miracles, of a light that burned for eight days when it should have only lasted for one and a people who surmounted overwhelming odds to reclaim their historic homeland, so they could live their lives in peace and practice their religion in peace.”

     

    The President then invited Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a military chaplain who serves as the rabbi at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, to offer an appropriate blessing to remind the gathering and the world of the meaning of this holiday.  The candles on a special menorah brought from the Jewish Museum in Prague were lit by two Holocaust survivors from the former Czechoslovakia, Margit Meissner and Martin Weiss, from Bethesda, Maryland.  Both are volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

    The Menorah

    Holocaust survivors Margit Meissner and Martin Weiss participate in the Menorah lighting with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama

    Holocaust survivors Margit Meissner and Martin Weiss participate in the Menorah lighting with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama during the Hanukkah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Dec. 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

    The nineteenth-century brass menorah used at the evening reception – and the fate of the couple who owned it – illuminates the turbulent history of the Jewish community in Bohemia and Moravia during the first half of the twentieth century and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.  In 1922, Abraham Isaac and Hayyah Ettinger, a husband and wife who lived in the Czech town of Hrušov, donated the 19th century brass menorah to the local prayer hall.  They are named in the Hebrew inscription engraved on the menorah’s base:

    The menorah was used in the prayer hall until the Nazis burned it down on the night of June 11, 1939, and demolished the rest of the building during the following winter.  On November 23, 1939, after the annexation of the Czechoslovak border area (the Sudetenland), the Nazis expelled the Ettingers and their three children and deported them to Poland.  The Ettingers were murdered by the Nazis in an unknown place in 1943.

    Today, the menorah has been used to celebrate Hanukkah at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Prague, a mansion that was built by a Jewish family in the 1920s and seized by the Nazis and used as a headquarters for their leaders during the German occupation. 

  • From the Archives: Hanukkah at the White House

    Ed. note: Today at 4:10 ET, tune in to whitehouse.gov/live to see President Obama deliver remarks at a White House Hanukkah Reception

    • Menorah presented to Harry S. Truman by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel on May 8, 1951.

      Menorah presented to Harry S. Truman by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel on May 8, 1951.

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    • David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister, and Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, presented Harry S. Truman with a menorah in the White House on May 8th, 1951.
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    • Jimmy Carter lights a menorah at the White House Ellipse, December 7, 1979.
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    • Ronald Reagan receives a Menorah from the Friends of Lubavitch in the Oval Office on December 17, 1979.
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    • Silver menorah given to Ronald Reagan by the Friends of Lubavitch on December 15, 1987.
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    • George Bush participates in a Hanukkah Celebration in the Old Executive Office Building on December 21, 1989.
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    • Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Hanukkah celebration in the Oval Office, December 21, 2000.
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    • Yariv Ben-Eliezer, grandson of David Ben-Gurion, and Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry S. Truman, light the menorah for the annual White House Hanukkah Reception, December 15, 2008.
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    • President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host a Hanukkah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Dec. 16, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
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    • George W. Bush in the Grand Foyer of the White House before the menorah lighting ceremony for Hanukkah on December 15, 2008.
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    See the full size gallery

    Among the gifts from heads of state that are in the holdings of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is a menorah presented to President Truman by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. The menorah dates back to at least 1767, when it was donated to a synagogue in Buergel, Germany. 

    The menorah was used in the synagogue until 1913, when it was found broken in pieces.  A man by the name of Siegfried Guggenheim asked for the broken pieces and provided a replacement. The Guggenheim family restored the old menorah for their personal use, and brought it to the United States when they immigrated in the 1930s.  Eventually, the menorah was acquired by the Jewish Museum in New York. 

    When Prime Minister Ben-Gurion visited the United States in 1951, he searched for a suitable gift to give to Harry S. Truman in light of the President’s recognition and support of the State of Israel.  The Jewish Museum suggested the menorah, and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion presented it to Truman on his birthday, May 8, 1951.

    In 1979, Jimmy Carter participated in lighting a Hanukkah menorah on the Ellipse, just south of the White House.  Each President since then has commemorated Hanukkah at the White House.  The ceremonies have ranged from small presentations in the Oval Office to large parties with the First Family, but they have all shared the common element of a Hanukkah menorah. 

  • The First Vice Presidential Sukkah

    Last night, the Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden hosted their fall Jewish Community reception at the Vice President’s residence. To mark the occasion, which took place during the seven-day festival of Sukkot, the Vice President and Dr. Biden welcomed their guests with the first-ever Vice Presidential sukkah. 

    Sukkot is an especially joyous holiday, because it falls right after the days of prayer and introspection that characterize the High Holidays, and it is known as the “season of our rejoicing.”  This annual fall harvest festival also commemorates the 40-year journey of the Jewish people from Egypt through the desert to the Land of Israel.

    To recall the journey through the wilderness to the Land of Israel, Jews build and decorate a temporary hut at their homes or synagogues, and the Torah commands that they dwell in them for seven days. Jews most commonly observe this command by eating all of their meals in the sukkah. Additionally, in keeping with the joyous and inclusive nature of the holiday, Jews extend hospitality towards others by inviting guests to dine with them in the sukkah.

    Before the reception, sukkah builders from American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) came to the Vice President’s official residence to build the sukkah….

    Before the reception, sukkah builders from American Friends of Lubavitch came to the Vice President’s official residence to build the sukkah

    (by Matt Nosanchuk)

    After the sukkah was built, a group of Jewish children with disabilities from local area schools, joined by their parents, came to decorate the sukkah. . . 

    After the sukkah was built, a group of Jewish children with disabilities from local area schools, joined by their parents, came to decorate the sukkah. . .

    (by Matt Nosanchuk)

    After the sukkah was up, Dr. Biden (and Champ) made a surprise visit to the sukkah….

    After the sukkah was up, Dr. Biden (and Champ) made a surprise visit to the sukkah….

    Dr. Jill Biden joins guests under the sukkah (by Matt Nosanchuk)

    And the sukkah, which is a symbol of hospitality and inclusion, was ready for the guests.  Read more about the Vice Presidential sukkah here.

     Matt Nosanchuk is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.

  • President Obama’s Rosh Hashanah Visit to the Great Synagogue of Stockholm

    President Barack Obama and Swedish Prime Minister view possessions of Raoul Wallenberg at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm

    President Barack Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt view possessions of Raoul Wallenberg at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm in Stockholm, Sweden September 4, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

    This year, as Jews in America and around the world begin gathering with the family, friends and synagogue communities to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, they are joined by President Obama, who made an historic visit today to the Great Synagogue of Stockholm on the first leg of his trip to Sweden and the G20 Summit on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.  The Synagogue, established in 1870, stands at the heart of the Swedish Jewish community, and the President’s visit sends an important multidimensional message about tolerance, whether it takes the form of combating anti-Semitism, promoting LGBT rights, or accepting regional and ethnic diversity.  

    President Obama was joined at the synagogue by the congregation’s Rabbi and members of Stockholm’s Jewish community.  For Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue was decorated in white, a symbol of renewal and purity for the holiday.  In addition, President Obama was joined by members of the family of Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat, who, in partnership with the U.S. War Refugee Board, traveled to Budapest and saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by shielding them from deportation behind the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag.

    President Obama honored Wallenberg’s memory in his remarks at the Synagogue:

    “I cannot think of a better tribute to Raoul Wallenberg than for each of us -- as individuals and as nations -- to reaffirm our determination to live the values that defined his life, and to make the same choice in our time.  And so today we say that we will make a habit of empathy.  We will stand against anti-Semitism and hatred, in all its forms.  We will choose to recognize the beauty and dignity and worth of every person and every child.  And we will choose to instill in the hearts of our own children the love and tolerance and compassion that we seek.”

    President Barack Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt place stones and pause for a moment of reflection at the Holocaust Memorial

    President Barack Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt place stones and pause for a moment of reflection at the Holocaust Memorial at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm in Stockholm, Sweden September 4, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

    During his visit, Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt showed the President several artifacts related to Wallenberg’s life and work.  The President also visited the Holocaust Memorial erected on the wall outside the Synagogue in 1998, bearing the names of the 8,500 relatives of Jews living in Sweden who were murdered by the Nazis.  In keeping with tradition of honoring the deceased, President Obama placed a stone on the Memorial and paused for a moment of reflection.

    Matt Nosanchuk is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement

  • Rosh Hashanah Greetings From the White House

    Shanah Tovah from the White House!  At sundown on Wednesday evening, the Jewish community here in the United States and all over the world will begin celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

    Over the course of the High Holidays, we reflect on the past year and recommit ourselves to our core values.  This year, the American Jewish community had the opportunity to do this as Jews and as Americans.  That is because Rosh Hashanah this year falls just one week after our entire nation had the occasion to reflect on our values during the historic 50th anniversary of the March on the Washington. 

     In his 2013 video message for the High Holy Days, President Obama says:

    “Fifty years ago last week, Rabbi Joachim Prinz stood with Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Representing the thousands of Jews there that day, he told the marchers, “When God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept.”

    “For millions of Jews, this moral concept is at the heart of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  As the high holidays begin, it’s a chance not just to celebrate with friends and family, but to ask some of life’s most piercing questions.  Am I treating strangers with kindness?  Am I living not just for myself, but for others?  Am I doing my part to repair the world?  Where we fall short, the New Year is a new opportunity to get things right. 

    “And where we still have work to do, the New Year is a chance to reaffirm our commitments.  At home, we must continue building an economy that gives all people willing to work hard a fair shot at a middle-class life.  Beyond our borders, we must stand for the security of our allies, even as we take new steps in the pursuit of peace.  I was proud to visit Israel earlier this year to renew the unbreakable bond between our two countries, and to talk directly with young Israelis about the future we share. 

     “Just like the generations that came before us, we live in challenging times.  But I know that if we work together we can make this moment one of hope for all our neighbors – in America, in Israel, and around the world.  In that spirit, Michelle and I wish you and your family a sweet, happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year.”

     Matt Nosanchuk is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement

  • Middle East Peace Negotiators Come To Washington

    President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators

    President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to discuss the formal resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in the Oval Office, July 30, 2013. To the President's left are, Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh. To the Vice President's right are Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molho. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

    At the invitation of Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators traveled to Washington this week to formally resume direct final status negotiations. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho represented the Israelis, and Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh represented the Palestinians.

    As the negotiations got underway on Monday, President Obama offered his support, noting:

    “The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination. The United States stands ready to support them throughout these negotiations, with the goal of achieving two states, living side by side in peace and security.”

    On Tuesday morning, President Obama and Vice President Biden met with the negotiators at the White House.  The President conveyed his appreciation to both sides for the leadership and courage they have shown in coming to the table, and to directly express his personal support for final status negotiations towards the goal of achieving two states living side by side in peace and security. 

    This resumption of talks began in Washington on Monday night with an Iftar dinner hosted for the negotiators by Secretary Kerry at the U.S. Department of State, and also attended by the newly appointed U.S. Special Envoy  for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, Ambassador Martin Indyk.  

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosts an Iftar

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosts an Iftar for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, on July 29, 2013 (Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State)

    Negotiations continued on Tuesday and concluded with a press conference at which Secretary Kerry emphasized that the goal of the negotiations is to reach a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months. He also announced that the parties will meet again within the next two weeks either in Israel or the Palestinian Territories.

    “I think everyone involved here believes that we cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time,” said Secretary Kerry in his remarks on Tuesday. “So while I understand the skepticism, I don’t share it and I don’t think we have time for it. . . .  A viable two-state solution is the only way this conflict can end, and there is not much time to achieve it, and there is no other alternative.”

    In his remarks, Kerry reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security:  

    “Our commitment to Israel’s security is why President Obama’s Administration has done more than any before it to strengthen our unshakeable bond and why General John Allen is on the ground working to ensure Israel’s security needs will be met. . . .”

    He also underscored the benefits of peace, stating:  “We can also envision a day when Israelis actually can truly live in peace – not just the absence of conflict, but a full and a lasting peace with Arab and Muslim nations, an end once and for all to the pernicious attacks on Israel’s legitimacy. . . .  And we cannot forget that the security of Israel will also benefit Palestinians next door.”

    In her remarks, Justice Minister Livni thanked President Obama for his dedication to the peace process, recalling his historic trip to Israel in March, which served to jump-start the process that led to this week’s meetings:

    “I also want to thank President Obama for his personal commitment to peace and to Israel’s security.  The powerful impression left by the President’s last visit to Israel still remains in the hearts of the Israeli people,” said Minister Livni.

    In his remarks, Chief Negotiator Erekat expressed his appreciation to the President and Secretary Kerry:

    “I would like to extend our deepest appreciation to President Barack Obama and to you, Secretary Kerry, for your relentless efforts and unwavering commitment to achieve a just, comprehensive, lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”

    Read and watch more of Tuesday’s remarks here.

    Matt Nosanchuk is an Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

  • Jewish American Heritage Month

    Last week, the White House celebrated the eighth annual Jewish American Heritage Month. As President Obama declared in his proclamation honoring this month, “More than 350 years have passed since Jewish refugees first made landfall on American shores. We take this month to celebrate the progress that followed, and the bright future that lies ahead.”

    Over 150 students, organization representatives, and leaders from the American Jewish community gathered in the White House to enjoy a staging of the “Gefilte Fish Chronicles: The Musical”, which was adapted to a musical production following its successful 2007 television premiere. “The Gefilte Fish Chronicles” speaks to the Jewish American experience and to the rich traditions and stories that American Jews have kept alive across the generations.

    The audience also had the opportunity to hear from Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, who spoke about the President’s commitment to the American Jewish community and from Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was the driving force behind JAHM’s inception in 2006. We thank them for their participation in this unique event.

    Zachary Kelly is Special Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff and works with the Office of Public Engagement on Jewish outreach.

  • Bending the Arc Toward Justice

    A hundred years ago, a Chicago lawyer named Sigmund Livingston raised his voice and launched a movement. He declared his mission was “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Today, we congratulate the Anti-Defamation League on its 100th anniversary.

    We all know the quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But there’s a corollary:  that arc bends faster when it is pushed, and the ADL has always pushed. The ADL was there at the height of World War II, defying hate groups and fighting against the brutal onslaught of anti-Semitism. The ADL was there in the 1950s, during Brown v. Board of Education, fighting for desegregation. And the ADL was there pushing for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Today, we are proud to work with the ADL on a wide range of issues, as we follow President Obama’s charge to work towards a country that is “more fair, more just, and more equal for every single child of God.”

    With enormous support from ADL, the President signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. This act extends the coverage of the Federal hate crimes law to include attacks based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

    President Obama upheld this country’s highest ideals by repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As he put it, “we are not a nation that says, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one.’”

    Together with the ADL, we stand against bullying.  In 2011, we held the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, attended by the President and First Lady. The ADL has been out front in equipping families and educators in the fight against bullying, both in person and online.

    Together with the ADL, we stand with the Dreamers who were brought into this country as children, many of whom found out as adults they weren’t citizens when they tried to apply for a job and for college.

    In his ADL address in 1963, President Kennedy described citizenship to the United States as “a proud privilege.” He spoke of the millions of people who left other countries, other familiar scenes, to come here to build a new life and make a new opportunity for themselves and their children. In fifty years, that American dream has remained unchanged.

    Together with the ADL, we stand with women and girls. Just a couple of months ago, President Obama signed a bill that both strengthened and reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Thanks to this bipartisan agreement, thousands of women, men, girls and boys across the country who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking will be able to access the resources they need to help heal from their trauma.

    Together with the ADL, we stand against hate. President Obama made clear during his recent trip to Israel that anti-Semitism has no place in this world. He heeded the words of Dr. King, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That’s why we must defend justice so vigorously. That’s why we cannot tolerate anti-Semitism or any hate, at home or abroad.

    President Obama said, “Not in the classrooms of children. Not in the corridors of power. And let us never forget the link between the two. For our sons and daughters are not born to hate, they are taught to hate. So let us fill their young hearts with the same understanding, the same compassion we hope others have for them.”

    And together, we congratulate the ADL on their anniversary, and look forward to working with the ADL toward the day when our world is free from hate.

    Valerie B. Jarrett is a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama. She oversees the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls.