Monday, February 17, 2020

Celebrating Chanukah at the White House

When the Founding Fathers of the United States created the role of President, they created a chief executive who functions as both head of state and commander of the armed forces. In the role of head of state, the president invites foreign leaders and visitors to the White House. On this Presidents Day, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of the celebration of Chanukah among U.S. presidents, and in the White House.

During the bitter winter in Valley Forge, PA, General George Washington saw a soldier huddling over two tiny flames. The soldier explained to Washington that Chanukah commemorates how a small band of Jews fought for their freedoms against tyranny. The following winter, General Washington visited Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, PA. When the Harts lit Chanukah candles in the presence of their august guest, Washington informed them that a Polish Jewish immigrant soldier had already enlightened him about Chanukah. Michael Hart’s daughter Louisa wrote the first-hand story down in her diary.

In 1951, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, during an official visit to the United States, presented a Chanukah Menorah to President Truman and the people of the United States. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter lit the new National Menorah in Lafayette Park, erected by Chabad. In 1983, President Reagan visited a local JCC in the DC suburbs on Chanukah and a year later, he invited a delegation from American Friends of Lubavitch to celebrate Chanukah in the White House. President George H.W. Bush proudly displayed the chanukiah he received from the Synagogue Council of America and, in 1991, attended a Chanukah party for White House staff held at the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to host a menorah-lighting ceremony in the Oval Office. The event became newsworthy when 6-year old Ilana Kattan’s ponytail began smoking, and the president snuffed out the smoke with his hand.

The first official White House Chanukah party was convened and hosted by President George W. Bush in 2001. President Bush noted that while there had been candle-lightings in the White House previously, this was the first official celebration in the White House, and the first time a Chanukiah was lit in the president’s private residence at the White House. The official Chanukah party in 2005 began the tradition of “kashering” the White House kitchen, so all food would be under rabbinic supervision. In that year, President Bush became the first president to actually light a flame on the Chanukiah. Prior to that, members of the Jewish faith lit in the presence of the president.

Presidents Obama and Trump have continued the practice. In 2017, President Donald Trump became the first president with Jewish grandchildren who lit the Chanukiah.

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