Rabbi lights the way for the National Menorah event at Hanukkah

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Stu Eizenstat, who, as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter, helped pave the way for the first National Menorah outside the White House. This version has been corrected.


Rabbi Levi Shemtov, center, plans the lighting of the menorah on the White House lawn — one of the biggest and oldest public menorah lightings in the country. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
December 7, 2012

The calendar said four days until Hanukkah, but Rabbi Levi Shemtov knew he barely had three.

As the executive vice president of the D.C. headquarters of ­Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the fastest-growing movements in Judaism — Shemtov organizes Hanukkah celebrations all around the city. It was Wednesday afternoon, and one of the largest public menorah lightings in the country, the National Menorah Lighting, was scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday.

That meant crunch time in Shemtov’s Dupont Circle office. More than 3,000 people had ordered tickets to watch Shemtov climb into a bucket lift and light the candles of the giant menorah on the White House Ellipse. Many of those tickets needed to be mailed. It probably should have happened the day before, Shemtov said. And the orders kept coming — about one family every 10 minutes.

But at sundown on Friday, Shemtov would set down his phone, step away from his computer and observe Shabbat, using no electronic devices until Saturday night. Work is forbidden on the Jewish day of rest, and in Chabad, that includes flipping switches.

Chabad is a branch of Orthodox Judaism, founded in Russia 250 years ago. It adheres strictly to Talmudic law, but it also engages in enthusiastic outreach, running 3,000 centers in more than 65 countries, with a new one opening on average every 10 days.

As is traditional in Orthodox Judaism, Shemtov does not shake hands with women unless they’re close relatives. He won’t budge on that principle, but he’s happy to engage with people who want to know why.

“I don’t get intimidated easily,” Shemtov said. “I feel that after the initial gust of force of denial or rejection, if I’m persistent and persuasive, I’ll get my point across. That’ll open up a warmer dialogue.”

For now, Shemtov was taking advantage of modern technology. As he held his office phone to his ear, planning the performance of the U.S. Navy Band during the Ellipse lighting, he tapped at his smartphone. Then he rose and hovered by his PC, scanning e-mails.

“Eric Cantor’s coming,” he said.

As a U.S. representative, Cantor (R-Va.) will get a VIP ticket, meaning he’ll be guaranteed a seat with a good view. He’ll be in the company of other politicians, ambassadors, city officials and people who helped organize the event. This year, VIP tickets are running out, Shemtov said.

The politician with the best view will be Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, who will help Shemtov light the menorah. That role typically goes to a prominent Jewish politician. In recent years, it has been performed by Rahm Emanuel, who was then the White House chief of staff, and Jack Lew, who assumed the same role this year.

Shemtov said he grew up with a reverence for Hanukkah, the eight-day festival commemorating the victory in 165 B.C. of the Maccabees over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem. The menorahs he saw glowing from windows and doorways represented religious freedom. In the Soviet Union, where his father was born, Jews kept their menorahs hidden for fear of persecution.

“There’s just something about coming in from the cold and the dark and making something light,” he said. “I’ve always felt an affinity for it.”

But when Shemtov’s father, then the leader of Washington’s Chabad community, organized the first National Menorah Lighting in 1979, the event drew only a few dozen people to Lafayette Park, where it was then held, Shemtov said.

It almost didn’t happen at all. The secretary of the interior initially denied Shemtov’s father a permit to put a menorah on government property, saying it would violate the First Amendment.

Shemtov’s father called his friend Stu Eizenstat, an adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Eizenstat gave the secretary a choice: Either approve the permit or deny the National Christmas Tree’s permit too. If he disobeyed, Eizenstat would take the matter straight to Carter, who would side with Eizenstat — a major embarrassment for the secretary.

A few days later, Shemtov’s father had his permit.

“It showed that Jews could raise their heads up without fear,” Eizenstat said.

Shemtov began assisting his father with the National Menorah in the ’80s, and he took over the event in 1991. He’d just returned from Australia, where he had organized public menorah lightings for crowds of thousands as part of the country’s bicentennial. He told his wife he’d have to get used to turnouts of a few hundred.

“She said, ‘You’ll work it, and you’ll see that soon you’ll have thousands here,’ ” he said.

She was right. And that’s just a fraction of the number who now see the event on TV — 45 million around the world last year, Shemtov said.

During last year’s event, Shemtov promised to send a menorah to anyone watching from home who wanted one. He digs out a file full of e-mail requests he received in response. Not all of them are from Jews — one Christian man says he just really likes Israel.

The one Shemtov finds most meaningful arrived from Del City, Okla. “I’m disabled and unable to work, and I have no menorah for my celebration this year,” it reads.

“For this guy stuck someplace where he thinks he’s forgotten, this is the difference between darkness and light,” Shemtov said.

The media coverage has helped the National Menorah Lighting grow further, said Steve Rabinowitz, a political communications consultant who is well connected with the Hill’s Jewish community. The more people see it, the more attend.

Rabinowitz said he was initially ambivalent about the National Menorah. He wasn’t thrilled about its implications for the separation of church and state.

“I don’t want to see a nativity crèche in Judiciary Square, and I’m perfectly fine with not seeing a menorah,” said Rabinowitz, who considers Shemtov a longtime friend.

But Rabinowitz’s 8-year-old son loves the menorah on the Ellipse, Rabinowitz said. Though lighting the menorah in his home will always be more meaningful to him, Rabinowitz said he’s come to enjoy going to the public event with his family.

As for the politicians who attend, Rabinowitz said he thinks Shemtov attracts them because he’s not lobbying for anything. He just wants them to be part of his cultural celebration.

“He has almost no agenda on the Hill, and that’s a rare person who walks the hall of Congress,” Rabinowitz said.

If Shemtov can get both Democrats and Republicans in the same room lighting candles and eating latkes, he’s thrilled. He sees this as part of tikkun olam — the act of healing the world, what Jews are supposed to strive for.

As he explained this, his phone rang yet again. It was a rabbi in Oklahoma, calling to deliver the good news that the state’s governor, who is not Jewish, had agreed to host a Hanukkah celebration in her offices.

Shemtov congratulated the rabbi. Then he paused. A thought struck him. He read the rabbi the e-mail from the man in Del City.

“Call him, invite him, maybe have someone go to his house,” Shemtov said. “I would love to know what happens with him.”

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