Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative, joined members of the Jewish community, congressmen and foreign dignitaries for an annual celebration to light the National Chanukah Menorah this evening. The 30-foot gold menorah is located on the lawn known as the Ellipse, just south of the White House, adjacent to the National Mall.
"The story of Chanukah is a timeless one," Froman said. "It is a story of right over might, of people fighting for freedom, a struggle seen today as people struggle to celebrate their faith."
Froman likened the holiday to "the miracle of falling in love, of doing everything you can for your family, of devoting yourself to service of your community, your country."
The Jewish holiday, Chanukah, marks the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. A small group of rebels known as the Maccabees won control of the temple, only to discover they only had enough oil to keep it lit one night. But the oil lasted eight nights, which Jews considered a miracle. Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for eight nights.
For the first time since 1888, the first day of Chanukah falls on Thanksgiving, an event so rare it will not happen again for approximately another 80,000 years.
"Some have even coined it ' Thanksgivukkah,'" President Obama wrote in a statement read by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), at the event.
"As the first Chanukah candles are lit, we are reminded that our task is not only to secure the blessing of freedom, but to make the most of that blessing once it is secured. In that spirit, Michelle and I look forward to joining members of the Jewish community in America, the state of Israel and around the world as we work together to build a future that is bright and full of hope," Obama added in his statement.
The White House first lit a public menorah in 1979. President Jimmy Carter attended the ceremony. Ronald Reagan is credited with naming it the National Menorah. In the U.S. the first public menorah was in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in 1974. There are now over 15,000 public menorahs in 82 countries and all 50 states.
Despite persistent rain and near-freezing temperatures, approximately 300 people attended the outdoor event. "Look at how many people have braved the weather to help us mark this occasion," Shemtov remarked. His organization funds the event each year through its National Menorah Council.
The festive event included music from Grammy Award-winning violinist, Miri Ben-Ari, and the U.S. Air Force Band. "I would not miss this for the world," Ben-Ari told the crowd. "I have the Macabee spirit with me."
Ben-Ari, who is originally from Israel, dedicated her music "to all Jewish people in the world, wherever they are."
A 7-foot dreidel greeted children as well as men in historic Macabee costumes. Rabbi Levi Shemtov told the performers that although it was cold, "the Macabees had it tougher when they had to retake our temple."
At sundown, a forklift hoisted up Froman, Shemtov and his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, to light the menorah's first candle. The guests cheered.