Happy Hannukah at the Bush White House

As we celebrate the last Hannukah (Dec. 22-29) in the Bush White House, the President has marked the occasion by tendering a posthumous pardon to Charlie Winters. Winters was a Miami native, a Protestant who was inspired to help the fledgling state of Israel in its War of Independence in 1948.  The only way for the Israeli Air Force to get parts for its few fighter jets was by heroic Americans defying our government’s embargo against arms dealing.  This law is generally appropriate but occasionally gets in the way of history.

Winters was caught and spent some time in a Federal prison.  He never spoke of the experience to his children, but when they discovered it after his death, they petitioned for a pardon.  President Bush graciously acceded, timing the announcement for the Hannukah season.

In this spirit, it is appropriate for us to take a moment to publicize the outstanding respect shown by the President and Laura Bush to traditional Jews and their practices throughout his administration.  One historic example of this is the startling fact that, for the first time ever, a regular Torah class has been given in the White House to Jewish staffers who wish to attend.  It is more or less a weekly affair, offered by an old classmate of mine, Rabbi Tzvi Teitelbaum of Silver Spring, Maryland.  He is a co-principal at Yeshiva of Greater Washington and has been active for many years helping Jewish students at Georgetown University with adult education programs.

Once Rabbi Teitelbaum was heading out of the White House when the President came through with his aides.  “Rabbi,” he said.  “I’m on my way to deliver a speech at a synagogue.  Will you be there?”  “I have no way to get there,” Teitelbaum replied.  “Then come with me,” the President answered.  Teitelbaum was swept along and became part of the entourage.

Hannukah itself has been granted extraordinary primacy in the Bush White House.  Each year a major dinner is hosted by the President, inviting rabbis and Jewish lay leaders from all across the country.  Amazingly, in 2002, in a special session after the dinner with a few of the most influential leaders, he entrusted them with the knowledge of the forthcoming invasion of Iraq.

In the early days of the administration, the dinners were divided into kosher and non-kosher food sections.  The White House chefs made the non-kosher food on premises for the non-Jewish attendees and the kosher food was brought in by an outside caterer.  However, in the third or fourth year, one of the kosher eaters accidentally ended up at the wrong buffet and consumed some of the other food.  When Laura Bush heard about the mishap, she insisted that this must be prevented from ever recurring.  The only solution was to make the White House cooking equipment kosher and have the entire dinner made that way.

What does this entail?  Well, the theory is that the ovens and stoves absorb some secretions of the food cooked and baked in them and on them.  That spillage will then work its way back into the next set of food prepared.  This would have the moisture from last night’s pork soaking into tonight’s kosher chicken, making it impermissible.  The solution is to painstakingly run a blowtorch across all the surfaces of the cooking areas to eliminate this problematic material.

For each of the last four or five years, the day before the annual Hannukah dinner at the White House has featured an improbable scene.  A few trained kosher supervisors, mostly Hassidic Jews with beards, get checked in by the Secret Service.  The head into the commissary, roll up their sleeves and go to work for hours with blowtorches.  Then the kosher beef and chicken is delivered and the chefs get to work.  Jews and non-Jews alike get to eat a gourmet repast in honor of Hannukah, with nary a non-kosher morsel anywhere in the room.

This sort of respect is all the more remarkable because the President knows that it buys him very few votes.  The Orthodox Jews vote for him anyway and the Conservative and Reform Jews will vote Democrat until Hell freezes over, no matter what he does.  Yet this President has taken a stand as the leader of the free world to model for all of us how to treat all good people and their beliefs with dignity.