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Washington marks start of Chanukah with lighting of National Menorah

“When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism,” said Doug Emhoff, who is married to the U.S. vice president.

The annual lighting of the National Menorah on the Ellipse, south of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Andrew Bernard.
The annual lighting of the National Menorah on the Ellipse, south of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

Hundreds of people braved 40-degree temperatures on Thursday to attend the lighting ceremony of the National Menorah on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, to mark the first night of Chanukah.

American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) organized the event, during which Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, ascended on a scissor lift to light a 30-foot-tall menorah. The United States Marine Band and a team of cantors performed from below.

U.S. President Joe Biden did not attend. Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish and married to Vice President Kamala Harris, represented the Biden administration. He spoke about confronting antisemitism and dealing with grief in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel.

“Normally, this is a time of celebration and joy,” he said. “I know right now that might seem a little far-fetched to some of you. I know you’re in pain. I’m in pain. I know a lot of us are feeling unmoored and afraid. We’ve not seen anything like this moment.” 

“We’re seeing the presidents of some of our most elite universities literally unable to denounce calling for the genocide of Jews as antisemitic. That lack of moral clarity is simply unacceptable,” added Emhoff. 

He referred to a recent House hearing with the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“Let me be clear, when Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism, and it must be condemned,” Emhoff said.

He cited Biden’s national strategy to counter antisemitism and his efforts to secure the release of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas, including four Americans, as evidence of the administration’s record on fighting Jew-hatred and supporting Israel.

Also on Thursday, the White House scrubbed reference to CAIR being an adviser on that national strategy, and a spokesman for the White House denounced “shocking, antisemitic statements” from CAIR’s executive director “in the strongest terms.”

Menorah lighting DC
A playful dreidel at the lighting of the National Menorah on the Ellipse, south of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

The menorah-lighting also featured speeches by Montana Tucker, a singer, actress, dancer and social-media influencer who spoke about her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, at the Nov. 14 “March for Israel.” There were also readings from the winners of the National Menorah Essay Contest.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, attended the event but did not speak.

Two first-time attendees at the event, Zoe and Rachel, who live in Washington, told JNS that they enjoyed the ceremony. They had not tried the sufganiyot (“jelly doughnuts”) but reported the latkes and cookies were excellent.

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