Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Director of YU’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, gave the benediction at the 16th annual White House Hanukkah Reception on Thursday December 7th. Soloveichik was one of two guests called on to speak at the celebration, along with Louise Lawrence-Israels, a Holocaust Survivor and employee of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Trump began the ceremony by speaking about his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, calling it the reason that “[this Hanukkah Reception] will go down as especially special.” He also noted the presence of his Jewish grandchildren Arabella, Theodore, and Joseph Kushner, who helped with the menorah lighting at the end of the proceedings.
After Trump’s introductory remarks, Lawrence-Israels spoke of her experiences hiding in an Amsterdam attic during the Holocaust and her work for the Holocaust Memorial Museum, teaching people that “hatred and prejudice should no have a place in the world.”
The president then introduced Soloveichik, mispronouncing his last name at first and joking “You think [his last name is] an easy one? It’s not. But he’s so happy with yesterday[‘s announcement on Jerusalem] that he doesn’t care if I get it exact.”
Before beginning the blessings, Soloveichik reiterated the importance of Trump’s choice to recognize Jerusalem as the capital and thanked the president for “recognizing what we’ve all always known to be true.”
Soloveichik then led the room in two blessings, both in Hebrew and English. The first was the blessing said in the presence of the head of state. He then said a Shehecheyanu, a blessing typically said to mark significant and joyous events. This blessing is traditionally made when lighting the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah. Soloveichik explained that even though it was still over a week before the holiday actually began, the blessing was still appropriate to say as a celebration of the “joyous tidings” on Jerusalem. The city “lies in the heart and soul of every Jew,” he elaborated, “[and] now an American president has courageously declared Jerusalem the capital. God has allowed us to live to see this very joyous day.”
After his words, he lit the shamash so that Trump’s grandchildren could use it to light the first candle. He then led the crowd in singing Maoz Tzur.
The White House Hanukkah Reception was particularly noteworthy this year for its list of invitees. While the party has been an essentially bipartisan affair since President Bush first began the tradition in 2001, this year prominent Jewish Democrats were noticeably missing from the celebration.
According to congressional aids, the 28 Jewish democrats in Congress, including some of Trump’s harshest critics like Senators Chuck Schumer (NY) and Bernie Sanders (VT), were not invited to the party. The two Jewish Republicans congressmen–Representatives David Kustoff (TN), and Lee Zeldin (NY)–were in attendance. A number of prominent American Jewish leaders, like president of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs, were excluded from the invite list, likely for their vocal criticism of the president. For example, Jacobs penned a harsh criticism of the president’s Jerusalem decision, calling it a threat to peace in the region, just a day before the party took place.
Rabbi Soloveichik is a well known conservative and has long been associated with the Republican party. He is a visiting faculty member for the conservative Jewish think tank Tikvah, and was honored with giving the invocation at the opening session of the 2012 Republican national Convention.
The presence of Jewish Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer, a democrat appointed by President Clinton, seemed to be the lone display of bipartisanship in the room. In response to questions on the seemingly partisan nature of the guest list, an aid for Melania Trump explained that the affair was simply being made more intimate, with the guest list shrinking from 1,700 to 300 people.
The day after the Hanukkah Reception the president changed his twitter cover photo to a picture from the event in which Rabbi Soloveichik features center stage, with the President, Lawrence-Israels and the First Lady to his right and Ivanka, Jared, and their son Theodore, and the Vice President and his wife to his left.