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COVID-19 is causing Jewish leaders to decline the White House Hanukkah party invite — with regrets

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the White House’s annual Hanukkah party.

“I’m not going. I’m not traveling. I’m 82 years old,” said Harvard Law Professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, who has been an unofficial advisor to Trump and attended last year’s party. “I would go, if not for the virus.”

Jewish leaders have crowed about and cherished their Hanukkah party invitations since George W. Bush held the first one in 2001. The event, scheduled for Dec. 9 this year, also draws members of the House and Senate, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, senior administration officials and business leaders.

Most recently, the White House has held the latkes-and-lighting event in the East Room. Guests generally stand throughout the event as they mingle and nibble on kosher food. Trump attended last year’s party, along with members of his family.

But this year, many have declined the coveted invite, and it triggered mixed feelings even in those who have decided to attend.

The invitation said masks were required for every person above age 2. It also asked invitees to stay home if they’d had COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, and to “please” practice social distancing and use hand sanitizer when at the White House.

Experts including the administration’s own Dr. Anthony Fauci have described recent crowded White House events, such as the reception that honored recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, as “superspreaders.” Since Jan. 21, COVID-19 has killed 267,302 people in the United States, according to the CDC. There have been 13.4 million total cases.

Responses are due Dec. 4. One Jewish leader said on condition of anonymity that he has spoken with two dozen Jewish leaders who have been invited. Only two said they planned to attend, and both have had the coronavirus already. The man himself hasn’t yet decided what to do, because people will be taking off their masks to eat, and because of the White House’s reputation for skepticism about COVID-19 and the efficacy of masks.   “All of this creates an atmosphere where the virus could grow and spread like a petri dish – and nobody wants to be in a petri dish at the White House,” he said.

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y, and vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, said he isn’t going, because of COVID-19. Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is unsure whether he will attend for the same reason.

The White House did not respond to questions about how it will manage the health risks of an event where food is served.

ZOA president Mort Klein is going, and he knows others who have made the same decision.

“They want to see important people and they want to be seen,” said Klein.

Cindy Grosz of Long Island, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress this year, said she is grateful to Trump for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and for signing an executive order designed to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses.

“I myself want to say thank you to the president for everything he and his administration have done,” she said. “I feel it is very important.”

Five members of the Coalition for Jewish Values, an advocacy organization representing Orthodox rabbis, were invited. Because of the virus not all will attend, said Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the group’s managing director, who himself will go.

Others have concerns, but are putting them aside to take advantage of the opportunity to meet and thank President Donald Trump.

Hanni Wenner of Baltimore, the communications director for the Coalition of Jewish Values, is one of them. She’s worried, she said, but she thinks the event will be safe.

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, also said he’s motivated by attend by a desire to thank Trump face-to-face. He and his wife are a little bit worried, but will fly in from Florida, anyway.

Even Klein, who is going with his wife, said he feels very torn. On the one hand, he really wants to go — and the food is delicious, especially the lamb chops.

“They tell me they will have extra ventilation and islands where you can clean your hands constantly,” he said. “But if you are eating, you take off your mask.”

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