St. Louis rabbi is a guest of honor at White House Hanukkah party

Rabbi Susan Talve (center) delivers a blessing as U.S. President Barack Obama hosts Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (second from right) and Rivlin’s wife Nechama Shulman Rivlin (left) for a Hanukkah reception at the White House in Washington on Dec. 9. Also pictured is U.S. first lady Michelle Obama. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Until last week, Rabbi Susan Talve hadn’t visited the White House since she was a little girl with her parents on a family trip.

Then, last Wednesday afternoon, the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation made an unexpected return visit after she was invited by The White House to lead the prayers for the annual afternoon Hanukkah party and Menorah lighting.

Flanked by President Barack Obama and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Talve spoke in the East Room of the White House of the lights, hope and miracle of Hanukkah. She delivered a speech she had written of the kind that brought her to the White House, touching on civil rights and social justice issues. In her remarks. Talve addressed some of the most difficult issues confronting the world and expressed faith that good would prevail.

Although she didn’t have a chance for personal conversations with the presidents, she was able to talk briefly to First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I asked her, ‘So, how are the girls?’ She said they’re very busy this time of year,” Talve said.

Talve got the call to come to Washington only a couple of days before the first night of Hanukkah.   She and her husband, Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom, flew to the nation’s capital for the afternoon Hanukkah Party, held on Dec. 9.

Guests filled the East Room of the White House, enjoying latkes, conversations with some congressmen and the music of the Maccabeats, along with the presidents and company.

The rabbi said she was honored to represent the St. Louis Jewish community.

“I stand here to light these lights that say no to the darkness of Islamophobia and homophobia and transphobia and racism and anti-Semitism and all the other ‘-isms’ that dare to dim our hope,” Talve said.

Talve said she believed she was invited to the White House because of the people she stands with and represents: not only her family and Jews but all the people fighting for fairness and an end to violence, environmental dangers to communities and inequalities of all kinds.

In her remarks, she said, “Let us celebrate the real miracle— that no matter how much violence there is in Paris, in California or the streets of our nations— we will respond with more love and more understanding and more compassion and we will see that the good in us has grown like the lights of Hanukkah — and in spite of all odds- like the Maccabees of old — we, too, will win.”

She led the traditional prayers and the singing of Maoz Tzur, as the world leaders beamed on, smiling.  First ladies Obama and Nechama Rivlin of Israel stood by as Talve spoke. Israel’s president lit the lights on a nearly century-old hanukiah designed and created in Jerusalem by an acclaimed historic artist, Ze-ev Raban of the Bezalel School.

Talve said in an interview afterward that being chosen to speak at the White House with the presidents of Israel and the United States was a great privilege, “a moment I’ll always remember.”

“How beautiful that the Obamas would invite us into their home on Hanukkah,” she said.  “It was a wonderful opportunity to reach back into the story of the Maccabees and find meaning for today.”

The Hanukkah story teaches, “we have to be a beacon of hope to people who value freedom, we as Americans and American Jews.”

Talve said her joy was enhanced because she could say those prayers knowing that her 90-year-old father, Mark Talve, of New York, could hear them.

 Among Talve’s other most memorable standout moments: “The portraits of the first ladies and presidents are everywhere,” she said. “It’s so inspiring. I stood for the longest time under the portrait of JFK.”

Talve and Goodman also had an unexpected opportunity the morning before the party to hear a top-level briefing on the Syrian refugee crisis. 

“I think it’s a very important conversation for our nation to have – to support keeping our doors open to Syrian refugees. They are the very people we have to help – they are terrible victims of violence and oppression,” Talve said.

Talve said she was pleased to hear that the U.S. government was contributing substantially to help the refugees now.

“We learned the U.S. is spending millions and millions of dollars to help settle Syrian refugees in some of the other countries,” including Turkey, she said.

In her remarks at the White House, Talve said that this nation has been a place welcoming to immigrants and must continue to be. She also highlighted pressing local issues and the mothers in St. Louis who support those causes — getting guns of the streets and concerns about the West Lake Landfill. 

Despite the great honor, Talve faced controversy both before and after her trip. Before she left, she was the target of social media criticism by the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace and Hands Up United harshly criticizing her for her support of Israel.

Talve said Monday that she had since received extensive correspondence from participants in the Black Lives Matters/Hands Up movement supporting her.

The second controversy involves Rivlin’s participation in the Obamas’ White House Hanukkah reception.  Some rightwing bloggers in Israel are now criticizing the Israeli president for sharing a podium with Talve because she is a Reform woman rabbi and because of her politics and some of Obama’s positions. 

Talve replied in an interview that she had been impressed both with Rivlin’s comments at the event and with an op-ed piece he wrote that week that appeared in the Washington Post.

“I had never met him before,” Talve said.  “He spoke beautifully — and I like that he wished all the Christians a Merry Christmas,” she added.

Read the full text of Talve’s White House speech online at