The Hanukkah miracle begins with the story of the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus making the observance of Judaism punishable by death. The Jews fought back, and against seemingly insurmountable odds, reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple which had been desecrated by Antiochus’ army. After reclaiming the Temple, the Jews were disappointed to find that there was only one day’s worth of oil left to burn in the Temple. The Hanukkah miracle is that this one-day supply of oil lasted eight nights. On this, the last day of Hanukkah, American Jews have another miracle to be thankful for.
For the first time in world history, Jews have not only been allowed in a country, but welcomed into it, sewn into the fabric of society. The unique freedom found in America is made clear in President George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport. Washington wrote:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights…
In Europe and elsewhere in the world, Jews were merely “tolerated” at the discretion of the dominant culture. In America, they were fully equal to everyone else in religious rights. According to Washington, “the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and requires only that good citizens pledge their support to the country in return. Heritage expert Dr. Matthew Spalding expands on this idea in “The Meaning of Religious Liberty.”
When new Heritage staff members attended a retreat this week at Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, the long-standing acceptance of Jews in America was palpable. As an Orthodox Jew, I will only eat meals specially packaged and certified as Kosher. The Mount Vernon staff fulfilled my request without batting an eye, something most professional catering companies cannot do. I was able to enjoy a kosher meal with my coworkers in the home of America’s first president, a striking symbol of religious acceptance in America.
Two thousand years ago, the Jews fought for the right to practice their religion freely and openly. In the modern era, many of us have been lucky enough to find a home in the United States, where we are not only free to practice our religion, but have found our values embraced and honored in the first nation to acknowledge a Judeo-Christian tradition.