The air was cold, but the festive mood helped bring a sense of warmth as the crowd gathered on The Ellipse in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7 for the 45th annual National Menorah lighting ceremony. The event, which was organized by American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), featured a large, 30-foot menorah that stands just south of the White House.
Jewish music filled the air as the renowned United States Marine Band, which is commonly referred to as “The President’s Own,” played a number of well-known Hebrew and Chanukah songs. They were accompanied by Cantors Benny Rogosnitzky, Nissim Saal and Berel Zucker, who sang stirring renditions of several Chanukah tunes and the blessings on the candles under the leadership of musical director Avremi Gourarie.
The diverse crowd included hundreds of people from a wide range of backgrounds, all of whom came to celebrate Chanukah amid rising antisemitism and in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel. Attendees included New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Montana Tucker, a singer, actress, dancer and social media star who has almost 15 million followers on social media.
Tucker, who referred to herself as “a proud Jew,” spoke of her grandfather, her zayde, a Holocaust survivor who passed away four years ago at the age of 97.
“After the Holocaust, he made it his life’s mission to make sure that he shared his story with everyone he met so that no one would ever forget what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust and to make sure nothing like that would ever happen again … I made a promise to my zayde to not let him down, to not let Israel down and to not let the Jewish people around the world down because his mission is now my mission. ‘Never again’ is now,” she said.
“The Hebrew word ‘Chanukah’ means dedication,” she added. “I know each and every one of us is dedicated to making a change in the world, to bring light into the darkness that surrounds us. And we must dedicate ourselves even more to this sacred task. We must never lose hope. We must be the Maccabees of today. Without fear, and together, we will strengthen each other and prevail.”
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), one of the primary organizers of the event, noted how vital it is for the Jewish community and the state of Israel to have the support of President Joe Biden and his administration during these challenging times.
Shemtov recounted an experience he had in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located next to the West Wing, at a meeting of Jewish leaders convened by the White House after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. He noted that “the president was worked up to the point where he pounded the podium and said, sometimes there just aren’t two sides. I could repeat those words, you could have read them in the news. Being in the room and watching that passion was very, very important and moving.” Shemtov went on to thank President Biden and his administration for “all they’re doing to counter the hate that’s being thrust upon the Jewish people in Israel around the world.”
The National Menorah lighting ceremony also featured remarks from Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, national director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), and Sander Gerber, a Jewish community leader and CEO of Hudson Bay Capital. In addition, a fifth-grade girl from New York and a fourth-grade boy from Atlanta, the two winners of the nationwide National Menorah Essay Contest, read their essays about the importance and meaning of Chanukah.
Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, who attended the event, spoke passionately about the spike in antisemitism and the need to stand up against hate.
“Normally, this is a time of celebration and joy. I want us to celebrate Chanukah. And 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, and I know it’s scary. Just look at the news, just the past couple of days. What have we seen? We’ve seen 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,” he said.
“We’ve seen a restaurant owner, who’s a friend of mine, accused of genocide simply because he’s Jewish. We’ve all seen college students afraid to go to class. We’ve seen people afraid to go to markets, afraid to go to synagogues, literally being attacked on our streets. 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, and condemned unequivocally and without context,” he added.
“Even as we face what feels like such empty darkness right now, I am hopeful. Look at the story of Chanukah. The story of Chanukah and the story of Jewish people has always been one of hope and resilience … So even though it feels like these are dark times, we will continue to live out the legacy of the generations of ancestors who came before us. We will rededicate ourselves to embracing our faith and practicing our traditions. We cannot live in fear or be afraid. We must always live openly and proudly as Jews,” he concluded.
After Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov and Sander Gerber lit the menorah, the United States Marine Band played “Oseh Shalom” and “God Bless America” before the crowd dispersed. On their way out, attendees were treated to latkes and jelly donuts, which are traditional Chanukah fare, as well as complimentary personal menorah kits.