Interior Secretary David Bernhardt helped light the National Menorah on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, on Sunday, the 40th year that the program has been made possible by the secretary’s department.
“We’re honored, of course, to have with us, Cabinet-level presentation every year,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch prior to the lighting. “This year it is in the form of the one who is charged with overseeing national parks across the country, the beautiful parks of our land, including this Ellipse.”
Often, the lighting of the menorah is done by a Jewish member of the current administration, typically a member of the president’s Cabinet. Bernhardt, who is not Jewish, lit the shamash.
Shemtov recalled the genesis of the Washington menorah project. He said his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, was denied a permit in 1979 by then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus to put a menorah on government property, claiming that it would violate the First Amendment. Abraham Shemtov called White House domestic-affairs advier Stuart Eizenstat.
Eizenstat gave Andrus a choice: Approve the permit or have President Jimmy Carter do so in what would be an embarrassment for the secretary. The permit was approved, and Carter was the first honoree to help light the menorah, which has been erected and lit every year since. It was designated in 1982 as the National Menorah by President Ronald Reagan.
“The light of religious freedom and tolerance is ever brighter,” said Bernhardt. “And so we gather here today in the glow of that light. … We have a beautiful 30-foot menorah that will stand as a daily reminder of the miracle of Chanukah and the spirit of religious freedom.”