Chanukah At The White House
As he has every year since taking office, President Bush met Monday with select Jewish leaders at his private White House residence to light the Chanukah menorah before the annual Chanukah reception in the Roosevelt Room.
This year, the meeting with Jewish leaders coincided with International Human Rights Day and focused on religious discrimination and freedom. Representatives from Iran, Syria, the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Uganda, and Venezuela shared personal stories.
The meeting was also attended by Judea and Ruth Pearl, parents of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
“America must remain engaged in helping people realize the great blessings of religious freedom; and where we find societies in which religious freedom is not allowed to practice, we must do something about it,” the president said.
Dr. Mayer Ballis, founding president of Council to Rescue Syrian Jews and past president of Sephardic Bikur Holim, spoke about the fate of 850,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab lands.
Ballis, who has overseen the resettlement of 4,000 Syrian Jews in the United States, appealed to President Bush to remember these refugees: “The plight of Syrian Jewry and other Jews of Arab lands, who suffered and lost valuable assets, should be taken into consideration in future negotiations about settling the matter in the Middle East as far as consideration of refugee status and compensation,” he said.
Ruth Pearl further emphasized the point, describing how she was forced to leave Iraq at age 15 with just one suitcase. She urged that the plight of Iraqi Jews enter every Middle East refugee equation as well.
An intimate menorah lighting ceremony in the East Room of the White House, honoring Daniel Pearl, followed the meeting.
Judea and Ruth Pearl recited the blessings and lit the Pearl family menorah that Daniel’s grandparents, Chaim and Rosa Pearl, brought with them when they immigrated from Poland to establish the town of Bnei Brak in Israel in 1924.
Judea Pearl said, “This menorah is connected with the building of Israel. The menorah lighting ceremony is an honor to many such menorahs brought by many pioneers who were inspired through the story of the Maccabees to rebuild their historical homeland and regain sovereignty and dignity.”
Pearl said he believes it is important to recognize those early Jewish pioneers, particularly at a time when Iranian president Ahmadinejad is trying to portray Israel as having come about merely as a result of the Holocaust.
“The menorah is symbolic of the efforts of my grandfather and others like him who moved to Israel long before the Holocaust. Israel was an organic historical process and not a product of the Holocaust,” Pearl said.
Finally, Bush greeted the 600 guests at the annual festive Chanukah party that included a glatt kosher dinner.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of American Friends of Lubavitch who ensured that the koshering of the White House kitchen adhered to the strictest standards, said, “Considering the context of the story of Chanukah, the celebration of an actual menorah lighting with kosher food served by the leader of the free world and first lady in the White House is extraordinarily compelling.
“The Hellenists sought not to murder our bodies but our faith. Today both of those are, baruch Hashem [thank God] not a concern; our only concern should be not to waste that blessing.