Here’s a phone message that’s guaranteed to get a return call: “This is (Ploni) calling from the White House Chief of Staff’s office. Please call back when you have a moment.” It was a month or so ago that I received such a call, setting into motion a whirlwind of activity.
As the fortuitous nature of events unfolded, a member of the President’s staff read something that I had written, and he decided that I would be the right person to offer the opening prayer at the President’s meeting with a small group of Jewish leaders in honor of Khanukka. “I think”, he said, “that the President would enjoy meeting you.” And, if I wished, I could “stick around” for the White House Khanukka party that evening. Well, I thought, that might just be a lot of fun!
Although the meeting was to be kept under wraps until after it transpired, I decided that my Command Chaplain at U.S. Army North needed to know that I would be meeting with the Commander-in-Chief, in uniform. And, of course, WHICH uniform was a big question in my mind. After conferring with the “Protocol” office, he informed me that I was to wear a Dress Blue uniform during the day, and a Mess Dress uniform in the evening. In 29 years of service, I had never had a reason to acquire the latter uniform. Ensuring that it was set up just right required a significant amount of email and phone conversation!
Each year, the President convenes a meeting of Jewish religious leaders prior to the White House Khanukka party.
This year he invited individuals who could contrast their own experience living under oppressive regimes, with the religious freedom we enjoy in the United States of America.
A dozen or so of us gathered in the Roosevelt Room, along with selected members of the President’s staff. I offered my prayer, and, at the conclusion of the meeting, I presented the President with a copy of the prayer book for U.S. military service members I highlighted the passages containing the prayers for Khanukka, the prayer for travel and the prayer for our country.
I gave him a folder with texts prepared by the American Jewish World Service which connect the message of Khanukka with the genocide in Darfur, the classic story of Khanukka with Pres. George Washington at Valley Forge, and the words of the prayer I had written for the occasion. In my prayer, I emphasized the actions of the Maccabees in fighting for religious freedom, and our mandate, in the words of Leviticus, “not to stand idly by” the blood of our neighbors. I referenced the Haftara for Khanukka, including the words of the prophet Zekharya, “not by might and not by power”, and prayed that we be blessed with the wisdom to know when the use of force becomes, tragically, necessary. We prayed for our deployed service members, and, I concluded with the words, “May our readiness to defend never diminish our commitment to seek peace and pursue it.”
The President asked each representative to share a bit of his or her story.
A rabbi from Cuba noted that, while it had formerly been illegal in his country to go to synagogue, now it is illegal NOT to go to synagogue- Castro’s government needs a Jewish community to exhibit to American tourists. We learned that 85% of the Ugandan Jewish community were forced to convert during the reign of Idi Amin. An Iranian Jew reported that his children were required to curse Israel and America following the revolution in 1979. A leader of the Syrian Jewish community commented that he considers his true birthday to be the day he arrived in the United States 30 years ago.
Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Parliament, Yuli Edelstein, who had been imprisoned in the former Soviet Union for three years, observed the rise of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, and the President replied that the failure of the state to speak out is equivalent to an endorsement. They reminisced about when the President had visited Israel and Mr. Edelstein was working in immigrant absorption. “He tried to absorb me”, the President recalled. A Jew from Zimbabwe called directly for “regime change”, and the President responded, “I’m a regime change kind of guy.” Anti-Semitism, we heard, is an expression of the government of Venezuela and not a grassroots phenomenon.
Ruth and Judea Pearl, parents of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, were the honored guests at this meeting. Ruth spoke of her experience as a refugee from Iraq, and the death of her brother in a border skirmish in Israel in 1949. At the White House Khanukka party that evening, she and her husband lit their family Khanukkia, which had traveled from Poland to Israel to Washington, D.C.
At the conclusion of the meeting
We were ushered into the Oval Office where the President offered some historical perspective on the office and posed for a photo with each of us. He was extremely gracious and witty. As I approached his desk, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Colonel!” to which I replied, “Yes, sir”. He thanked me for my service in Iraq, and promised to look at the siddur.
There were at least two significant moments in our conversation. The President was interested to learn that there are 25,000 Jews still in Iran, and he pledged to work for their release.
The President acknowledged that the Jewish community has reached out to and absorbed refugees who were forced to flee Muslim countries. He appreciated our perspective that, as the Palestinian people request reparations for the assets of refugees from Israel, so there are many Jewish refugees from Muslim countries who may be entitled to compensation for their losses.
In the evening, my mother and I attended the White House Khanukka party. The administration takes pride in the fact that Pres. and Mrs. Bush are the first residents of the White House to open their home to the Jewish community for a Khanukka celebration. As we moved forward to have our photo taken with Pres. and Mrs. Bush, he thanked me again for my prayer and for the siddur. He indicated that he would review the siddur the next day. It was quite a surreal experience to wander through these beautiful and historic rooms, enjoying fabulous kosher food and listening to the Marine Corps Band play traditional Jewish music. A special highlight was a visit with my former teacher, Dennis Prager.
Since I was in my “Mess Dress uniform”, many people inquired about my service record and asked to take photos with me. Truly an unforgettable experience!
God bless America.