In what many scholars have credited for bringing the message of Hanukkah to mainstream American public consciousness, the annual lighting of the National Menorah in Washington, D.C., took place for the 42d year on the first night of Hanukkah.

“The Ellipse,” just south of the White House, is a well-known landmark to D.C. residents, and government officials and staff, and hosts many prominent events throughout the year. The lighting of a 30-foot menorah in the presence of dignitaries, leading politicians and typically with a full roster of entertainment is perhaps one of this national historic site’s most celebrated annual events, organized by American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) under the leadership of Rabbi Levi Shemtov with the presence of his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of the board of Agudas Chasidei Chabad and director of the Lubavitcher Center in Philadelphia.

This year the shamash (“helper”) candle was lit by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. After being introduced by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Bernhardt spoke about the importance of religious freedom, symbolized so starkly by the menorah, particularly in its location just across the White House.

Of course, this year’s celebrations were somewhat altered. Special measures due to coronavirus restrictions were in effect, but that did not detract from the festive spirit and appropriate pomp. The United States Navy Band struck up their usual moving ensemble for the event, accompanied the “Three Cantors”: Cantors Yitzchak Meir Helfgot of the Park East Synagogue in New York; Yaakov Motzen of the Shul in Bal Harbour, Fla.; and Aron Tessler from Washington, D.C.

“Just as the symphony is made up of so many different pieces all playing in sync, so it is with us: We are all an integral part of a Divine symphony, and when we play together, it is magical,” Rabbi Levi Shemtov told the crowd. That the program moved seamlessly from an in-person event to a virtual join-up with a philharmonic for “Moaz Tzur” and video message from Jerusalem highlights how that symphony of life is so real.

The National Menorah lighting started in 1979 as part of a campaign initiated in 1974 by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to raise awareness of the holiday and hold public menorah lightings. It was attended, in 1979, in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis, by President Jimmy Carter, who lit the shamash and shared greetings with the assembled crowd.

Every president since has recognized Hanukkah with a special menorah-lighting. In 1982, the menorah lit in Lafayette Park became publicly referred to as the “National Menorah” by President Ronald Reagan.

Due to its location, the event has become somewhat of a “flagship lighting” for thousands of similar celebrations across the nation, and indeed, the world. Recognizing this status, American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) established the National Menorah Council, which is instrumental in counseling and shepherding public menorah-lighting ceremonies around the world.

Traditional potato latkes and jelly doughnuts were served—pre-packaged, of course.

Free menorahs and dreidels were made available, and live appearances were made by “Dreidelman” and “The Maccabees.” Winners of the National Menorah Contest were announced with the top two winners delivering moving speeches to the assembled.

As befitting a ceremony on the lawn opposite the White House home to the chief executive of the United States of America, the band concluded the event with a resounding rendition of “God Bless America!”