WASHINGTON (JTA) – Chanukah is a story of a people standing alone to keep its lights aflame.
This year in Washington, the message was of a people standing with friends — and even the not-so-friendly — to douse terrible flames.
President Obama hosted the annual White House Chanukah party within hours of the news that a devastating forest fire had broken out in Israel and killed approximately 40 people. The death toll later rose to 42, and it took more than three days for the fire to be extinguished.
On Dec. 2, the day the blaze started, Obama strode into an East Room filled with secular Christmas trees — decorated, but without stars or other signs of the nativity — and started by delivering his condolences to the families of the fire’s victims and pledging U.S. assistance.
“As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster,” Obama said. “A short while ago, our ambassador in Tel Aviv, Jim Cunningham, issued a disaster declaration, which has launched an effort across the U.S. government to identify the firefighting assistance we have available and provide it to Israel as quickly as possible. Of course, that’s what friends do for each other. “
The “that’s what friends are for” theme resonated throughout the subsequent days.
Dan Shapiro, the top U.S. National Security Council official handling Israel policy, and Nancy Lindborg, an assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, worked through much of the weekend coordinating U.S. assistance to Israel.
Shapiro, who has been battered in recent months as he serves at the nexus of a relationship that has been beset by diplomatic contretemps, seemed especially eager to underscore the U.S.-Israel friendship.
“The U.S. government has been working overtime in many, many different streams to try to be as responsive as possible,” he said in a conference call with media. “That’s what friends do for each other.”
By Monday — following a weekend during which, associates said, Shapiro barely slept — Shapiro and Lindborg were on another conference call, this time with Jewish leadership. Again he underscored the friendship.
“Hundreds of people across the United States were able to mobilize to go help our ally,” Shapiro said.
The breadth of the assistance, as described by Lindborg, seemed far-reaching. Five transport aircraft delivered 111 metric tons of fire suppressant and 3,800 liters of fire retardant. Another eight transports with aerial firefighting capacities were on the way when Israel informed the United States that the fire was under control.
A team of 10 experts on wildfires had flown in, and a 60-person firefighting team was on standby in Boise, Idaho.
Israeli and Jewish organizational officials did not stint in making clear that the assistance was appreciated.
“The people of Israel have been profoundly moved by the outpouring of support from a number of foreign countries, including many in our region,” said a statement from the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “We are especially grateful to President Barack Obama for his expression of support.”
Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Friday evening.
Netanyahu and other government officials in statements noted contributions from nations in the region, not all of them in the best of relations with Israel — including Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.
In Monday’s conference call, Shapiro said such cooperation was a bright light at an otherwise difficult diplomatic moment.
“It’s always positive when neighbors with whom there are tensions of one kind or another can put those tensions aside,” he said. Egypt and Jordan also sent firefighting aid to Israel.
Chanukah festivities in the capital got off to a windy start last week on the national mall. Nearly 2,000 people packed the ellipse in front of the White House to watch Jacob Lew, the Cabinet-level director of the Office of Management and Budget, light the national menorah.
Yitzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso, performed traditional Chanukah melodies on his Stradivarius and led the U.S. Navy Band in renditions of “Oseh Shalom” and “God Bless America.”
The highlight, though, was a simple father-son moment, writ large.
As has become the tradition, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of American Friends of Lubavitch, joined his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who founded the movement’s Washington office, on the crane to light the menorah. The two rabbis are in place to escort the special guest — in this case Lew — through the lighting. A gust of wind blew off the younger Shemtov’s hat and kipah. Deftly, his father pulled his own kipah out from under his hat and handed it to his son. And the show went on.
So did plenty of others on the first few nights of the holiday. The Israeli Embassy hosted a holiday concert at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington on Chanukah’s first night. The PR agency Rabinowitz-Dorf packed much of the city’s liberal Jewish cognoscenti into its Connecticut Avenue headquarters for its annual Latkes and Vodka party.
In addition to the White House party on the holiday’s second night, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) hosted a party for Jewish Democrats and those who love them in the Library of Congress. The local Republican Jewish Coalition chapter took over a swanky club, the Josephine Lounge, but kept it wonky with an address by conservative theorist David Frum. On Tuesday night, the Indian Embassy was set to hold what has become an annual must-attend: A Chanukah party featuring specialties from the subcontinent.
The White House affair was considerably looser than last year’s events, or those hosted by President George W. Bush, who started the tradition of a Jewish White House party. For one thing, the party spilled into multiple rooms; for another, it ran for hours.
At the candle lighting, the East Room was packed with 500 Jewish figures, artists and senior Democrats. Also, as Obama put it, “a third of the Supreme Court”: associate justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Susan Sher, the first lady’s chief of staff and the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community, worked the room in her last event before returning to the private sector in Chicago.
Lighting the candles were Susan Retik and her young family. Retik, a 9/11 widow, founded Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit that assists Afghani widows. The menorah used was on loan from Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans, where it was uncovered by rescue workers after the Katrina floods of 2005.
There were signs that a president often accused of not lining up his ducks in a row on policy matters was at least on top of one key organizational matter: Last year, the president wounded sensibilities by posing only with a select few guests. This year, arriving guests were handed tickets numbered with their places in line for a photo with the first couple.