WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama and some 500 notables celebrated the second of the Hanukkah’s eight nights on Thursday (Dec. 2) by lighting a menorah fished from the muck of a synagogue flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
Describing the Hanukkah candles as tiny reminders of “the importance of faith and perseverance,” Obama told the festive crowd in the East Room that “the menorah we’re using tonight, and the family who is going to help us light it, both stand as powerful symbols of that faith.”
The candles were lit by Susan Retik and her family. Retik’s husband, David, was killed on 9/11. “Susan could have easily lost herself in feelings of hopelessness and grief,” Obama said. “But instead, she turned her personal loss into a humanitarian mission—co-founding `Beyond the 11th,’ a group that reaches out to Afghan widows facing their own struggles.”
With the lighting of the candles, a prayer was sung to the accompaniment of jazz saxophonist Joshua Redmond, the son of legendary African-American saxophonist Dewey Redman and Jewish-American dancer Renee Shedroff.
The holiday crowd included administration officials, members of Congress and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, as well as Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
After Hurricane Katrina, Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox congregation with about 125 families, held together, renting space from a Reform community. Now Beth Israel is building a new synagogue next door to their hosts. Their blackened menorah was the only sacred object in ritual use the congregation was able to save, and has since come to be a precious symbol of their ordeal and recovery.
In 2005 Beth Israel’s synagogue stood less than a mile from the catastrophic floodwall breach on the 17th Street Canal. Eight feet of water swirled into the temple; days later, pictures of Jewish rescue workers trying vainly to recover its ruined Torahs in waist-deep water circled the world and helped awaken a national response.