It was a day in Washington, D.C., with the high point being remarks by President Trump to a gathering of several hundred Jewish leaders to mark the observance and celebration of Chanukah. It was an impressive and meaningful event held in one of the elegantly appointed ballrooms dotted with well-lit and handsomely decorated Christmas trees.
I attended the December 7 event as a member of the working press, which is contrasted with what it is like to attend as a conventionally invited guest of the White House. To get here, one needs to be invited. In fact, if you ask someone you know in the system to be invited, it seems that’s a sure way not to be invited. It was unclear to me whether all White House events are like that or just occasions involving the Jewish community.
Most Americans will never have the opportunity to attend an event at the White House. By attending the Chanukah celebration, I became familiar with the way journalists are handled by and interface with the Trump administration and the White House staff.
It was a double lesson of sorts. Entering the White House through a western gate off the beaten path that leads directly into the surprisingly cramped room where the daily briefings by Sarah Sanders takes place, and then being led through a winding route into one of the ballrooms where the actual Chanukah event would take place.
The event itself was attended by people you know or have known for many years, intermingled with personalities you see regularly on the cable news shows. At the start of the evening I was standing next to Trump confidant Jason Greenblatt and Elliot Abrams, a strong supporter of Israel and former senior adviser on foreign policy to both President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Not far from them was Morgan Ortagus of Fox News, and just a few feet from there was Senator Roy Blount (R-Missouri).
As I made my way through the crowd, getting a bit closer to where the president would address the gathering, I noticed Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. I also had the opportunity to talk with Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents, Esther and Shlomo Werdiger of Agudath Israel of America, Maury Litwack of Teach NYS, Dr. Joe and Karen Frager, and Shani and Assemblyman Dov Hikind amongst many others.
Beyond the dropping of assorted names that you may or may not recognize, the bottom line is that these are the people who possess the ability to impact Trump administration policy, not only as it affects Israel, but on a domestic level as well.
The scoop here is that there are so many Jewish leaders in the United States that it became imperative for the administration to put together two Chanukah events — an afternoon gathering at 3 p.m. and then one at 7 p.m. Originally, I was on the 7 p.m. list. After careful consideration, I told my host and sponsor, so to speak, that if I cannot get into the 3 p.m. event then I’m probably going to skip the party.
The fact is that imagining what the gathering was like and hearing from friends who attend regularly would have been enough for me. On the other hand, if I was not there in person, going through the process, meeting the people, and pressing the flesh, there would not have been much to write about. So once my good friend and colleague, Jake Turx of Ami Magazine, managed to switch me to the 3 p.m. event, there was no going back, and I was on my way.
I wrangled a ride to D.C. with veteran political activist Ezra Friedlander; Joe Stamm, the CEO of Med Review; and Maurice Bortz of the same company. Except for a couple of stops for coffee in the morning, the ride was relatively quick and uneventful. The three gentlemen were great company, and it seems that we all share generally similar political outlooks so the conversation was rather harmonious.
Once we arrived at the White House the three of them stood on the line that was at the front of the imposing edifice, while I walked around the long block to another entrance that is reserved primarily for the press. Once inside, the Secret Service reviewed my ID, and I did not even need the passport that I had inside my jacket pocket.
The Donald Trump that is portrayed on the media — especially the fake news mainstream media — is nothing like the man I heard and saw softly addressing these few hundred people inside the people’s house. Through the good offices of Assemblyman Hikind, eight Holocaust survivors attended the afternoon event and they all had their names announced by the president himself who welcomed them to the White House.
The president talked about his policies on Israel and about the miracles that we celebrate on Chanukah. Even though there was a huge teleprompter just behind us where the president could easily read his prepared remarks, he went off script to address the survivors, all in their mid-eighties and older, when he said that he wanted them to know that he took the bold step of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with them in mind. It was a beautiful and deeply meaningful moment. In a sense it was the reenactment of the Chanukah miracle in our times. That is, the unpopular move of the embassy opposed by most of the world brought to life a manifestation of the delivery of “the many into the hands of the few.”
After the long drive to D.C. and the anticipation of the just-as-long drive home, I was in for a surprise when Ezra said we would visit three more parties. “Are you kidding?” I asked. I thought I would try to talk the others out of it and that they would prevail on Ezra, but once Ezra makes up his mind, that’s pretty much it — you are going where he wants you to go.
Who knew that Chanukah was such a festive time in the nation’s capital? Following the White House event we made our way to the Trump International Hotel where the Republican Jewish Coalition was hosting their annual Chanukah party. The hotel is the ultimate in luxury, breathtaking and even otherworldly.
Next stop was the Library of Congress where we were invited not to a Chanukah event, but rather to celebrate the independence of the Islamic Republic of Bahrain. Bahrain declared its independence from Britain in 1971 and today is an island nation sandwiched between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The total population of the country is just 1.2 million. Like the other gulf countries, Bahrain is warming to Israel, so it was not so shocking when four men walked into the independence event wearing yarmulkes. We stood on the receiving line to shake hands with the Bahraini Ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa.
While we were at the Bahraini event we also met the ambassadors to the U.S. from Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Argentina. Then after the Bahrain Independence Day celebration, we were off to one of the congressional office buildings where we participated in an annual bipartisan Chanukah celebration hosted by a Democratic congresswoman from Florida Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Long Island congressman Lee Zeldin, who recently won reelection in Suffolk County.
Zeldin is a major supporter of President Trump, and Wasserman Schultz is a key former supporter of everything Clinton at all costs. Politically, they are indeed a strange pairing as they subscribe to different ends of the political spectrum. On Chanukah, however, at least for a few hours, all those differences fell away. The two members of Congress, with the assistance of a military chaplain, lit the menorah, recited the berachos, and we all sang traditional Chanukah tunes.
It was a great day for the U.S. government to celebrated Chanukah. We piled back into the car for the four-hour drive back to New York. We managed to stay awake, getting home at about 1 a.m. We lit our menorahs in our respective homes, and then with bones weary and eyes closing from exhaustion, we sang Chanukah songs softly so as not to wake anyone.