As the White House prepares for its annual Hanukka party and candle-lighting, many previous attendees are going to find themselves left in the dark as the number of invitations is set to shrink to half of last year’s.
Though several Jewish leaders expressed understanding for the economic and other reasons behind the cut, they acknowledged that it would likely help feed feelings in some quarters of the American Jewish community that the White House is giving them the cold shoulder.
It comes as a different attempt at outreach to Jews – an appearance by US President Barack Obama before the General Assembly of North American Jewish Federations last week – was cancelled so that the president could participate in a Fort Hood memorial service.
When asked about the decisions surrounding the guest list and its trimming, a White House spokesman responded that Obama “looks forward to celebrating Hanukka at the White House and having many members of the Jewish American community at that event.”
One Jewish organizational head apprised of the planning gave several reasons, however, for the decision to bring this year’s guest list down to some 400 names.
He noted that that number was approximately the same as George W. Bush invited in his first year in office, though the guest list swelled to twice that number over the course of his two terms. The Obamas want to have room for “natural growth” of the list over the next few years, he said.
Reducing the number will be a particular challenge, though, as the Republican Bush faced lower demand for tickets to start with. While there were only three Jewish Republican members of Congress in 2008, there are over 10-fold more Democratic ones now. And the number of Jews with strong ties to the Democratic Party is significantly larger that those close to the GOP.
Still, the Jewish official said, “They want it to be more intimate,” explaining that “the president and Mrs. Obama do not want to sit around for 800 photos.”
But the major factor he gave, as did others who spoke to The Jerusalem Post, was cost.
Given the current economic downturn, Jewish officials said the White House was loathe to be seen spending substantial sums on holiday parties.
The issue, they noted, was exacerbated by the need to serve kosher food, with one official calculating that this increased the price tag by 33 percent.
“A lot of people who were invited year after year will not necessarily understand that there’s a cost with having kosher food, and not understand why they’re not getting their photo with the president,” noted one Jewish leader.
And despite the expense of kosher food, another said that cutting down the guest list could be viewed as a snub by the Obama administration at a time when many American Jews are sensitive to White House slights.
“It fits the narrative that he doesn’t really give a hoot, but I don’t know that it’s fair that it fits in,” he said. “I think it’s simpler than that … in these recessionary times.”
But William Daroff, Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that size isn’t what matters.
“It’s not about how many people are in the doors. It about the fact that the event is happening,” he said.
“It speaks to our place as a Jewish community in the mosaic of American society that the leader of the free world, in the house that represents freedom and democracy around the world, has the front door wide open to the Jewish community, that we are celebrated as a people and a vital part of American society.”
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who as American Friends of Lubavitch Washington director has been involved with the White House Chanukah party since it formally began in 2001, says complaints about the size of the guest list are “very inappropriate” for an event that is the president’s prerogative to hold in the first place.
“My delight at the continuation of this wonderful tradition is far greater than any disappointment in the cutting of the list,” he told JTA.
“Inclusion from across the community is more important that how many spefically from each sector get to go.”
Shemtov told the Jerusalem Post that having a kosher spread is a key part of welcoming in the Jewish community as part of that tradition.
He described the spread as “the works,” including traditional Hanukka treats such as potato pancakes and sufganiyot.
Pointing to the food’s importance in the White House Hanukka ritual, he added, “People might think this way or that way on whatever issue, but everyone agrees on a good latke.”
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