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KU Hillel’s Lewis celebrates Hanukkah at the White House

Jay and Kim Lewis attended a Hanukkah party at the White House on Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Jay Lewis has had some big nights in his life including his wedding and the birth of his two children. KU’s national basketball championship in 2008 and the Royals 2015 World Series crown also rank high on the list. Now he can add attending a Hanukkah party at the White House.

“It was one of the best nights of my life,” he posted on Facebook after the party in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 14. “Pictures and words don’t do it justice.”

He said the highlights of the evening, also posted on Facebook, included shaking First Lady Michelle Obama’s hand, standing next to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and taking lots of selfies in the White House with his wife, Kim Davidow Lewis.

According to the White House blog, more than 1,000 people attended two White House Hanukkah receptions on Dec. 14.

Other information in the blog included, “Over the past eight years, the president has established a tradition of inviting special guests to light menorahs of great significance here in the White House. In his final year, the president invited family members of the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and the late Israeli Prime Minister and president Shimon Peres to join him and the first lady in celebrating Hanukkah.”

The Lewises were at the evening reception, attended by the Peres family. Both receptions were held in the East Room of the White House.

Lewis said it was a beautiful party, as one would be in any gorgeous house. 

“The White House is beautifully decorated for the holiday season. There were a lot of Christmas trees. The Marine Corps Band was in the big atrium playing and entertaining people. It was pretty incredible.”

He said the centerpiece of the evening was when President Obama spoke.

“He spoke about Hanukkah and the meaning and message of the holiday. He said that it teaches us the importance of any generation to stand up against tyranny anywhere you see it,” Lewis said.

Several news organizations reported that President Obama echoed these comments he made at the first reception, during the evening party.

“As many of you know, the name ‘Hanukkah’ comes from the Hebrew word for ‘dedication.’ So we want to thank you again for your dedication to our country, to the historic progress that we’ve made, to the defense of religious freedom in the United States and around the world.”

Following the remarks, a Peres family menorah that survived the Holocaust was lit by members of the Peres family.

Lewis, who has been executive director of KU Hillel since 2002, knew in October that he may get the special opportunity to attend the Hanukkah celebration. Hillel International had been told it may be getting a “handful of invitations” and, Lewis said, he was “lucky enough to be the one (campus executive) they reached out to.”

As one of Lewis’ Facebook friends commented, he most likely earned the well-deserved honor because he’s “made a huge impact on the KU Jewish world.”

He didn’t learn until about two weeks before the party that he was officially invited. Since Obama has been president, at least one other member of the local Jewish community attended a Hanukkah party at the White House. It was Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz when he was rabbi of Kehilath Israel Synagogue.

A true sports fan, there is one other moment that sticks out in Lewis’ mind. It was meeting ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser.

“He was the only person I walked up to and introduced myself.”

It was an evening he will never forget.

“I do not anticipate getting this special opportunity ever again but it was beyond words, beyond any expectations I could have. It was really cool.”