Rabbi Aaron Bisno visited the White House once as a child on a brief tour, but this time his experience was vastly different.
One of about 500 guests at the second of two White House Chanukah parties on Dec. 17, Bisno described the event as “pretty impressive.”
“President Obama said we were the best of the two parties,” noted Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, although first lady Michelle Obama reminded her husband that evening that he told the guests at the first party the same thing.
“But I really mean it this time,” the president quipped, according to a White House transcript.
Invited to the event by congregant Lazar Palnick, an active Democratic fundraiser, Bisno attended the party along with Palnick and fellow Pittsburghers Cliff Levine and Roger Levine.
“It was done beautifully,” said Bisno, “It was very special.”
But along with the festive kosher buffet dinner — which reportedly included latkes and lamb chops with cranberry sauce — the president focused an address to his guests on Alan Gross, who was released earlier that day after being held for five years in a Cuban prison for helping to increase Internet access at Cuban synagogues as part of a U.S.-funded project.
Arrested the night before he was to return home in 2009 and later convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was freed as part of a larger negotiation and the commencement of a shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
“Alan Gross’ release couldn’t be separated from the celebration,” Bisno said. “The timing was auspicious to lift that up to a Jewish group.”
The president began his speech by noting “what a glorious day this is, because, after five years, American Alan Gross is free.”
“From his cell,” the president continued, “Alan once wrote, ‘I refuse to accept that my country would leave me behind.’ And he is right. We’re committed to the principle that no American ever gets left behind. We do everything in our power to bring Americans home. So we thank all those who helped to make sure that Alan was never forgotten. And as now we’re moving forward, we know that the historic changes I announced today will mean greater opportunity and progress for both Americans and for Cubans, including the small-but-proud Jewish community in Cuba.”
The president’s message regarding the mandate to redeem captives — which is also a mandate under Jewish law — resonated, Bisno said, as did his words describing the holiday metaphor of light emerging out of darkness.
“The Chanukah story teaches us that our light can shine brighter than even we could imagine, with a little bit of faith, and making sure that it’s up to us to provide that first spark,” Obama said.
Guests that evening included Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer; Treasury Secretary Jack Lew; Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman; National Economic Council Director Jeff Zients; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; and Anti-Defamation League President Abe Foxman, along with his successor, Jonathan Greenblatt.
Squirrel Hill native, Rebecca Brown, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, performed with the Penn Shabbatones, a Jewish a cappella group. Brown was introduced to the Obamas.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York City led the blessing and candle lighting of a menorah built by children in Yemin Orde, a village in Israel founded in 1953 to provide a safe haven to orphans and young immigrants after the Holocaust. Atakalit Tesfaye, a graduate of Yemin Orde, helped to light the candles, joined by Dr. Adam Levine, who recently returned from Liberia, where he was treating Ebola patients.
“Yemin Orde is just one village,” Obama said. “But the story of Chanukah teaches us that there’s no such thing as a futile act of courage or a small act of faith. One doctor can save a life. One school can help a child. That life, that child may change a village. One person can be the spark that changes the world.
“So as we gather with family and friends, let’s give thanks to the miracles that we’ve been blessed with in our own lives, miracles large and small,” he continued. “During this Festival of Lights, let’s commit ourselves to making new miracles and to sharing them with the world.”
Noting that the story of Chanukah has evolved over time from the celebration of a complicated military victory to God’s miracle of causing the oil to last for eight days to Western culture’s interpretation of the story as one of religious freedom, Bisno found it “so completely appropriate to be celebrating Chanukah in the White House” the very same day that Gross was finally celebrating the holiday at home with his family.
“Miracles happen in our day,” Bisno said. “That was the story” at the White House.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.