U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday welcomed guests to the White House to celebrate Hanukkah, telling visitors that "one act of faith can make a miracle."
Obama reflected on Hanukkah's meaning during the reception marking the second day of the eight-day Jewish holiday known as the Festival of Lights.
Obama tied the themes of Hanukkah to the return of Alan Gross, a Jewish-American released by Cuba after five years in captivity. Obama said that in prison, Gross never gave up.
"I want to begin with today’s wonderful news," Obama said. "I’m told that in the Jewish tradition, one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim. My Hebrew is not perfect, but I get points for trying. But it describes the redemption, the freeing, of captives. And that’s what we’re celebrating today, because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free."
The president went on to say, "I can't think of a better way to mark this holiday with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes which are rooted in America's commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people including its small but proud Jewish community. Alan's remarks about the need for these changes was extremely powerful."
Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama also welcomed Inbar Vardi and Mouran Ibrahim, two students from the bilingual school in Jerusalem that was torched last month by Israeli extremists.
"The Hanukkah story teaches us that our light can shine brighter than we could ever imagine with faith, and it’s up to us to provide that first spark," he said.
"This is something that Inbar Vardi and Mouran Ibrahim know very well…. Just two weeks ago, their school’s first-grade classroom was set on fire by arsonists. In the weeks that followed, they and their classmates could have succumbed to anger or cynicism, but instead they built this menorah, one of four that we brought here from Israel this year. Each of its branches are dedicated to one of the values their school is founded on -- values like community and dignity and equality and peace."
The president also made a point of commending the Jewish food on hand. "What brings us together is not just lox and latkes, although I have heard the latkes here are outstanding," the president said. "Not as good as your mom’s, but they're good."
The Los Angeles Jewish Journal’s David Suissa reported that one man at the party had shouted out, "Mr. President, "when I told my Christian friend I was coming to a Hanukkah party at the White House, he told me, 'I didn't know the president was Jewish!'"
"I kept my eyes straight on him," Suissa wrote. "It was clear that the 'president was Jewish' idea had intrigued him. After about three or four seconds, as he was walking away, and looking at no one in particular, the president just said, 'I am, in my soul.' "
Rabbi Shavit Artson lit the menorah and led the blessings at the ceremony.
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