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The kippa with the presidential seal

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ALLAN GALE

How was it that I, a Jewish communal worker in Detroit, Michigan, received a coveted invitation, an exclusive “hot ticket” issued to only several hundred of the more than five million Jews in America, admitting me to the White House Chanukah party?

Perhaps my getting to know Matt Nosanchuk, the Detroit-born Obama administration liaison to the American Jewish community, over the past year
and bringing him to Detroit’s Jewish community in September to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, might have had something to do with it. 

Chanukkah at the white houseAfter lots of family discussion about who would accompany me to Washington, DC, I, my son Eric and his fiancée Jade set off for our nation’s capital.


RIGHT: Allan Gale (left) in the Cross Hall outside the East Room with Rabbi Jason Miller and his wife, Elissa, all from Detroit.


In late afternoon the three of us hailed a taxi and arrived at the gates of the White House visitors’ entrance and began to go through the several layers of security. We joined the growing crowd of party goers, which peaked at over 500, entering the White House.  Invitees were a Who’s Who of national and local Jewish leadership, Jewish members of Congress and other Jewish dignitaries. 

We were greeted by an a capella choir from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York,  which sang mostly Hebrew melodies throughout the three-hour affair.

We were able to visit several White House rooms, all beautifully decorated with Christmas trees and other items, and containing portraits of early presidents and displays of such items as President George Washington’s dinnerware.

Eventually we proceeded up a large, ornate staircase and into a hall where a Marine band was playing tunes of famous American Jewish composers. Off that hall were two large rooms, each able to hold some 250 people, where the food and drinks were. The fare included tasty potato latkes, platters of smoked lox salmon, sushi, lamb chops, rice dishes, dips and fancy desserts. All of the food was certified kosher. 

Two hours into the party, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, along with the three Jewish Supreme Court justices – Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan – arrived with Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum and his granddaughter Lauren. The president spoke briefly about Chanukah and about how the Jews, throughout history, “shed light”, even today championing freedom and compassion while the nation debates whether to take in refugees from the Syrian civil war.  

STORY CONTINUES BELOW PICTURE

Chanukkah at the white house 2 FULLPresidents Rivlin and Obama with First Lady Michelle Obama



Rabbi Sidney Schwarz of nearby surburban Maryland then took the podium and also spoke about immigration, relating the story of his father who in 1938 was aboard the last successful voyage to the West of the now infamous steamship St. Louis, saying that today we should not turn away refugees fleeing war or persecution.  Lindenbaum then lit the candles on Chanukah’s fourth night. The president’s entourage quickly departed, but  Obama stayed for about 10 minutes and greeted guests.  

At a little past 9pm we were asked to begin taking our leave.  My son Eric blurted out, “but we’re in the White House, I don’t want to leave”. We were each given as mementos a booklet describing White House holiday decorations, a printed programme of the evening and, the most precious keepsake for me – a kippa adorned with the presidential seal.  

The following day I was invited to a “policy briefing” with White House and State Department officials, discussing US-Israel relations, the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and US immigration and refugee policy.  

After a brief tour the next day of national monuments and museums – my future daughter-in-law Jade had never visited Washington, DC – we headed to the airport for the flight home. All of us were thrilled with what will surely be remembered as one of our trips of a lifetime.      

  • Allan Gale is the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit, an education and advocacy organisation of Detroit’s Jewish community. He visited Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria during a 2013 trip to South Africa when he addressed the SA Zionist Federation

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