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White House on (Hanukkah) Fire

Every year, for the last four administrations, I have traveled with my wife to Washington to attend the White House Chanukah party. I have always viewed this bipartisan event as a celebration of the story of the Jewish people in America. In the most powerful political arena in the world, the President takes time out of his schedule to celebrate the historic Jewish fight for freedom. As I have mentioned many times, having the opportunity to pray in the White House is the ultimate symbol of the freedom of religion that we possess in the United States.


Rabbi Steven Burg at the White House in front of an American flag


Yet, I sensed a change from past years. There was a tension in the air that was not present before. There was a unified concern among the participants of where the Jewish story was headed in America. That is not to say that issues like violence against synagogues haven’t clouded past events. But what is happening now across America is unprecedented in its volume and scale. As an acknowledgment of the rampant concern the Jewish liaison at the White House, Shelley Greenspan, who is truly an incredible leader and friend to all of our people, put together an hours long briefing leading up to the celebration. 


Rabbi Steven Burg at the White House


We heard from many government officials including Elizabeth Sherwood Randall, Homeland Security Advisor to the President and Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. They covered everything that is being done to keep Jews in America safe as well as what is being done to help Israel and gain release of the hostages. They were keyed into all of the issues and even referenced an attack against well known Jewish leader Raphael Nissel in Los Angeles this past weekend. 

Perhaps the most important address came from Deborah Lipstadt who serves as the United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism at the State Department. She is an educator by nature and gave a comprehensive talk of the challenges that our tribe faces around the world. My wife complimented her afterwards at the party and her beautiful response was “What did you learn from my talk?” I had a chance to share with her Aish’s work on the internet and to ask her about what is being done to combat the rampant bile of antisemitism being spread on the web. 


Deborah Lipstadt speaking at the White House


I knew the answer before she gave it. Governments can do very little to stop hate in cyberspace. I was happy to hear that the US Government was being proactive to hold major social media companies accountable to self standards and policing. This is frankly the only way to try to make a dent in the hate. Governments are not sophisticated enough to do it themselves. As depressing as this may seem, pressuring the companies to do the right thing is the only workable possibility. 

The highlight of my day was hearing from Aaron Keyak who serves as Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. A few months ago, Mariano Weil, a longtime parrner of Aish, reached out to me about Aaron Keyak coming to Buenos Aires. He said Aish Argentina had an opportunity to host him and asked for my thoughts. I told him that Aaron’s work was important and it would be great to support it. At this briefing I had a chance to publicly thank Aaron for being Aish’s guest in Buenos Aires. He said that the dinner that powerhouse brothers Frederico and Mariano Weil held for him at Aish was one of the highlights of his trip.


Maccabi USA heads at the White House


After the briefing, one of the heads of Maccabi USA which is coordinating the Maccabi Pan American games in the next few weeks in Argentina approached me and asked if he could connect to Aish Argentina for any assistance. I readily agreed and sent his information to Aish Argentina. Before I had left the room Frederico had already emailed this gentleman offering his assistance. I was truly proud of our Aish network. 


Plaque in front of a menorah


At the end of the night we had a chance to hear from President Biden who expressed his support for Israel and the Jewish Nation. On display was the menorah that Israel President Isaac Herzog sent to President Biden that was recovered by Shai Hermesh when he returned to his home on Kibbutz Kfar Aza after the brutal massacre and devastating destruction by Hamas on October 7. The White House dedication read that the recovered menorah is a “symbol of the Jewish people’s eternal spirit of resilience and hope that continues to shine its light on the world.” 


President Biden and Douglas Emhoff at the White House


My wife and I had the opportunity to meet Dana Cohen from the community of Shlomit in the Chalutza region where many of the residences were evacuees of Gush Katif. She was a guest of the world renowned Torah scholar and Rosh Beis Medrash at the Young Israel of Woodmere, Rabbi Shai Schachter.


Rebbetzin Burg and Dana Cohen


On 10/7 her husband, Aviad, rushed out with a few friends to defend the neighboring town of Pri Gan. They fended off the terrorists for hours until they retreated and as a result of their heroic actions, no civilians from this area were hurt or killed. Tragically, four men, including Dana’s husband, were killed in this battle. I was extraordinarily moved when I learned that the men had rushed on the Shabbat of Simchas Torah from a religious community to defend a secular community. The world does not understand that the ultimate secret to the longevity of the Jewish Nation is that when one of us is in trouble we never stop to ask how religious or secular that person is. We are family and family always shows up no matter the cost. 

At the lighting of the menorah by descendants of Holocaust survivors who work at the White House, all the right things were said. Still, with everyone saying the right things and the moving stories being told, I found myself asking a Passover question. Why is this night different from other nights? My answer was because the masks are off. We have learned over the last two months who is a true friend to the Jewish people and who truly hates us. 

These are trying times for our Nation. Dangerous times for our Nation. Yet the flame of the menorah will light our way. Many have tried to dissuade us from our dedication to the Almighty and each other. They have all failed miserably. In the end we possess the most treasured gift which can never be destroyed. That gift is the love that we feel for each other and the Almighty. Love will always conquer hate. My friends, let us all pledge to never let the haters stop us from living as inspired, passionate Jews. Let us continue to spread love to all corners of the earth.