Sunday, December 13, 2015

The White House Hanukkah Party 2015

White House Hanukkah Party invitation 2015My wife, Elissa, and I returned home Thursday following a busy two days in Washington D.C. Since becoming parents, we have both really made it a point to not go out in the evenings during Hanukkah, let alone travel out of town away from the kids. However, when I received an invitation to the annual Hanukkah Reception at The White House, we (of course) decided to make an exception knowing it would be quite the experience.

Like so many rabbis and Jewish community leaders I have enthusiastically followed the excitement of the annual Hanukkah party at The White House in past years from the outside looking in by scanning the photos and videos guests upload to Facebook and other social media. This year when the invitation arrived asking for my presence along with a guest, I knew Elissa and I would have a different perspective from the inside. After posting several photos (okay, a lot of photos!) on Facebook and Instagram during the party Wednesday evening, several friends asked me to blog about the experience, so here are some reflections:

We had heard a few fun tidbits from past attendees and they all proved to be true. The line of invited guests on the street outside The White House waiting to be processed by Secret Service security truly is an unofficial Jewish leadership reunion and a "Who's Who" of the American Jewish world. On the advice of some White House Hanukkah Party veterans, we got in line about an hour before the time on the invitation. We were surprised to see that the line was already about 40 people deep when we arrived. From our Uber car we could already see several friends and colleagues walking down the street toward The White House. At the front of the line I was excited to see Rabbi Burt Visotzky, one of my favorite teachers from rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The other rumor that is completely true is that the lamb chops at The White House are out of this world. Never have I eaten such delicious lamb chops before. They were enough to turn a vegan back into a carnivore. Just delicious! And of course, as in all years, The White House was made kosher and kosher supervised by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Executive VP of American Friends of Chabad Lubavitch. In addition to all the photos guests post of themselves in front of the portraits of Past Presidents, one of the most common photos is of the sign from Rabbi Shemtov explaining the strict kashrut standards for the evening.

Rabbi Jason Miller with Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Kosher Supervisor at The White House
With Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Kosher Supervisor for the annual Hanukkah Reception at The White House

The security process was very intense, which is not surprising considering it is The White House and the President and First Lady were in attendance. After having our identification checked twice by Secret Service against the list of attendees we were then taken into a small security house one by one to be sniffed by a German Shepherd before going through the security scanners. Once inside The White House, however, it was a very warm and relaxing atmosphere without any concern for our safety.

With Matt Nosanchuk
Each year the annual Hanukkah reception at The White House is organized by the liaison to the Jewish community, a position currently held by Matt Nosanchuk. I had the honor of meeting Matt, a Detroit expat, at the Hanukkah party and I was amazed at what a spectacular job he does. Let's face it, it is not an easy task to produce two back-to-back parties for hundreds of Jewish leaders on the same day. I had a chance to also meet Jarrod Bernstein, a past liaison to the Jewish community position in the Obama administration, at the reception. Waiting for the President to speak, I also spotted Jay Footlick, who was the Jewish liaison in the Clinton Administration.

The Hanukkah party was, as I presumed, not a political event at all. There were Democrats and Republicans in attendance. It really was an opportunity to celebrate Hanukkah and not to debate any divisive political issues. I was, however, concerned about inappropriate comments that some people might make on photos I posted to social media that evening and I didn't want to have to be occupied with monitoring my Facebook account while at the party. So, before I left for Washington, I gave my assistant the task of monitoring my social networks for anything overtly offensive. At the end of the night, I'm happy to say that she only had to remove three comments that were inappropriate.

Rabbi Jason Miller and Elissa Miller at The White House Hanukkah Party

The best piece of advice about the party came from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who had attended the afternoon party. Before we headed out that evening, I asked him for any pointers and he was emphatic about wearing comfortable shoes. I told Elissa and she quickly threw a pair of comfortable shoes into her purse. After standing for a long time waiting for the President and First Lady to enter the room, she switched shoes and was grateful for Steve's advice, especially a few hours later as we made our way from The White House to the Library of Congress for Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz's Hanukkah party (the "after party" as some refer to the congresswoman's annual get-together).

Rabbi Jason Miller and Elissa Miller with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
My wife and I with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at her Hanukkah party at the Library of Congress

The White House is beautiful inside and even more so during the holidays. Guests of the party were free to roam from room to room. Some of the highlights were viewing the portraits of Past Presidents and First Ladies, looking through books in the library, checking out the beautiful candid photos of the First Family that adorned the walls, and admiring the display of the official White House dishes and holiday cards from past administrations. With The White House decorated for Christmas, it was comical to see so many rabbis -- of all denominations -- posing for photos in front of Christmas trees and wreaths.

Elissa Miller with First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Hanukkah Party
My wife, Elissa Miller, with First Lady Michelle Obama at The White House Hanukkah Party

One of the highlights, of course, was actually shaking hands with President Obama and Mrs. Obama. A White House staff member told Elissa where the best place to stand would be and we took his advice. It was fun watching as the President shmoozed with the kids next to us, asking about their school and sports teams. Before we left for Washington I asked one of my children what he wanted me to bring back for him. I was thinking a t-shirt, but he asked me to get a video of President Obama saying "hi" to him. Surprisingly, I was able to comply!

Many people have asked me about the differences between the afternoon Hanukkah party and the evening Hanukkah party. I too was curious and asked William Daroff earlier in the day. He explained that both parties are essentially the same. The food is the same at both parties and each have a Jewish a capella group perform (The Maccabeats from Yeshiva University sang at the afternoon party and the Chai Notes from Cornell sang in the evening). This year, the afternoon party included a visit from Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, and Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Ron Dermer were there too. The evening party included all three Jewish Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, although we only saw Justice Ginsburg who stood right by us during the ceremony (the President jokingly referred to by her nickname, "The Notorious RBG").

Rabbi Jason & Elissa Miller, Ruth Messinger of AJWS and Rep. Eliot Engel
With my wife, Elissa Miller, Ruth Messinger of AJWS and Rep. Eliot Engel

President Rivlin lit the Hanukkah candles at the afternoon party, while at the evening party we had the honor of watching as Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum lit the chanukkiyah with his granddaughter Lauren. President Obama talked about Lindenbaum's story of being born in Germany, deported to Poland, and eventually escaping to England with his brother via the Kindertransport. His parents and sister perished at Auschwitz. The President also shared the story of of how Lindenbaum, at age 81, rode his bicycle 200 miles with his children and grandchildren last year retracing his voyage in Europe and raising money for HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

With Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum

After the ceremony, Elissa and I had the pleasure of speaking with him and he explained to us what he was talking with President Obama about when they huddled together following the ceremony. It turns out that when he received the call from The White House asking him to light the menorah, Lindenbaum was looking at a photo of his sister who was very young when she was murdered at Auschwitz. He brought a print out of that photo with him to The White House so his sister's memory would be with him. He teared up as he showed the President the photo.

Rabbi Jason & Elissa Miller with Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin at The White House
With my wife, Elissa, and longtime Michigan Congressman Sandy Levin at The White House

The rabbi who spoke at the afternoon party made news for her speech, which I heard from the C-Span recording of that ceremony. While I agree with her message that we must stand together against hatred and that we should welcome refugees to our great nation, I think that she took a unique honor and used it inappropriately. The way in which she expressed all of her activist positions was undignified in that setting. Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who spoke at the evening party, on the other hand set the perfect tone and spoke beautifully about Hanukkah and its message for us today. I was very impressed by his words, which were meaningful and inspirational. Rabbi Schwarz's father fled Germany right before Kristallnacht and arrived to America on the St. Louis, the final voyage of that ship that arrived safely in America. The next voyage would be turned back to Nazi Europe as the passengers could see Miami and their fate was set. Rabbi Schwarz, like the skillful rabbi he is, used his personal story as a message about the importance of welcoming in refugees. He did it in a very dignified way and I feel honored that he was chosen to speak at the reception we attended.

Manny & Lauren Lindenbaum, Michelle Obama, President Obama & Rabbi Sid Schwarz
Manny and Lauren Lindenbaum, Michelle Obama, President Obama and Rabbi Sid Schwarz

The rich history of The White House was palpable for me as Elissa and I sat on the sofas and touched the doorknobs. I had the opportunity to speak to a woman who was serving glasses of wine. She told me that she began working at The White House a few days following the assassination of President Kennedy, and that while she left her job for a few years she felt compelled to return because it was so rewarding. At the end of the evening we walked over to the windows in the Blue Room and looked out onto the Ellipse as we could see the National Menorah, the National Christmas Tree, and the Washington Monument. It was a moment we'll never forget.

Finally, the part about this experience I will cherish the most is what it means to me as an American to be able to celebrate a Jewish holiday in The White House. Our world is a very dark place right now with a scary amount of hate, violence and divisiveness. There are so many countries in which it is no longer safe to be Jewish, and yet, in its 240th year the United States of America opens the doors of "The People's House" to the Jewish community so we may celebrate our religious holiday in which we bring light into the world. With great humility, I feel truly blessed and honored to have been included in this memorable experience.

Video of the menorah lighting ceremony at The White House Hanukkah Reception 2015:


Esther Allweiss Ingber said...

Thank you for your comprehensive report about the White House Chanukah party! I had the opportunity to meet Manny Lindenbaum and members of his family at the recent Kindertransport Association convention in Southfield and Farmington Hills, Mich. Manny made an impression as a kind and beloved individual. I'm happy he and his granddaughter Lauren had the honor of being part of the Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at the White House.

Rabbi Sandy Press said...

A beautiful report.With warmth and lit with a positive glow...
As you alluded, this site,

has been shared, and many , as did I, felt totally, as you said was not appropriate. The only legitimate complaint would be that she was invited to "light and speak "when her personality is known and to to speak, as she did.

Thanks for making this last "lights" on Chanukah this year, so bright!


Anonymous said...


My name is Aleksandr Sigalov. I am a Torah observant Jew.

I am sorry I post it here but I could not find your email. You can delete this after you read it.

I really enjoyed your website and your blog and I wanted to invite you to my blog and see if you would be interested in featuring it on yours. I can do the same in return. Here is the link:

I am having difficult time reaching Orthodox Jewish community due to the fact that many Orthodox Jews do not use internet or use it very little. However, they would benefit most from materials published on my blog. This is why I was hoping you can help me.

The current problem in Orthodox Jewish community caused by the fact that they do not follow Written Torah, the only Law that was given to Jews by God.

There is no pure form of Judaism today, as all sects and denominations have added to the Torah. Samaritans have Joshuah, Karaites have NK (Neviim, Ketuvim), Rabbinic Jews have Talmud and derivative works, e.t.c.

Not a single group follows the Law of God in its pure form, which is the Written Torah. They all follow man-made traditions and writings over the Written Torah.

This is why many young Orthodox Jews leave the community as they can clearly see that it is all bullshit that has no basis in reality. This is why Orthodox Jews are stuck in the past with radical views on issues like technology (internet, phones), female sexuality, science, e.t.c.

All violence in Israel has the same root as well. The Written Torah should be the law of the land and the 10 commandments should be Israel's constitution. For native and for the sojourner as Shemot 12:49 states. Democracy or any other form of government, including Rabbinic Torah (Rabbinic Theocracy), will never work in Israel. Only Written Torah will, as it was specifically designed for that land. Written Torah is extremely clear that the only way we can live in peace in Israel is if we would live by it. This is the absolute condition.

I am a former Orthodox Jew myself and I was pretty disillusioned by Orthodox Judaism. This is why I follow and live only by the Written Torah now as it is the only true word of our God. As a chosen people and as priests to nations we must set an example and represent the best of the best. This is not the case at this time.

The reason I am appealing to you is to establish a dialog and try to help spread real Torah knowledge, incur change in this horrible situation, as well as to call for Jewish unity everywhere under one true Law of God.

Let me know what you think.

Notable articles that I published on my blog recently:

My Letters to Presidents
Making Shewbread with Shelley Houser
Exact Value of the Omer
New and Proper Translation of Decalogue
Proper Translation of the 7th Commandment
New Modern Literal Translation of Genesis/Bereshit
Printable Mezuzot


Aleksandr Sigalov

Unknown said...

My given name is Wesley Paul. I enjoy your blog. While training I entered thousands of religious chat rooms when Yahoo was hosting them. I had never seen so much hatred. I for one am happy when clergy in any of the 33 major religions are in the White House on any day. Rabbi simply means Teacher, and quite frankly, everyone needs Teachers, all of their days. Keep up the good work, making friends, and influencing them to be more Peaceful. Shalom