It Was Wrong for Jewish Leaders to Attend Reckless Hanukkah Parties
In a recent op-ed, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach expressed surprise at the level of outrage directed at him over his appearance at the White House Hanukkah party. In his responses, Boteach essentially chalks criticism up to his support of President Trump.
I am one of Rabbi Boteach’s critics. Although I am not a supporter of President Trump, it is not Boteach’s partisanship that disturbed me this time. It is his poor judgment, his poor leadership, and his failure to see this moment beyond himself.
Rabbi Boteach and other attendees have said that they went to the party because they wanted to thank the president for the last four years. A thank you card would have been more appropriate, and, judging by the president’s non-appearance at one of the parties, perhaps just as impactful.
On the day that Rabbi Boteach and several hundred others attended the two White House Hanukkah parties, 3,411 Americans died of COVID-19, a record.
Because indoor gatherings are the most common cause of spread, public health officials, elected officials, and clergy, including many rabbis, have begged people to exercise caution during the holiday season by avoiding traveling and indoor gatherings with family and friends.
I live in the Five Towns near Peninsula Boulevard, a part of the route Hatzolah and other ambulance services take to several Long Island hospitals. Siren sounds are again dominant, as they were in March, April, and May. Most of us did not get together with family and friends for Hanukkah, although, regrettably, some did.
Throughout the country, nursing homes and assisted living facilities like the one where my father-in-law lives in nearby Valley Stream have severely limited the movement of their residents in an effort to keep them alive.
Our local hospital is Mount Sinai South Nassau, where Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, the polymath hero who somehow manages to hold weekly Zoom meetings on the pandemic along with his normal shiurim, presides over the infectious diseases department.
South Nassau is almost completely out of ICU beds; as of this writing, 17 of its 20 ICU beds are full. Three New York City hospitals are out of ICU beds altogether and into surge capacity. New York and Washington, DC have both ordered limits on public gatherings that the White House Hanukkah parties brazenly flouted.
Families are unable to visit dying relatives. Many cannot access proper care for non-COVID ailments, let alone COVID itself.
Thankfully, much of the Jewish organizational world has shown good leadership and ingenuity over the past nine months by going virtual. The Algemeiner recently held its annual Gala online. AJC, the organization with which I am a longtime lay leader, held online a recent Hanukkah party hosted by the Austrian Ambassador and, like many other Jewish organizations, has moved virtually its entire calendar of events onto Zoom. These have included meetings with prominent national politicians of both parties. All have been more than willing to do the right thing and meet virtually.
So in this atmosphere, one has to ask the obvious question that Rabbi Boteach refuses to ask – how could Jewish leaders attend a high-profile indoor Hanukkah party — one in which attendees came from all over the country and from Israel — at a time when most Jews are isolating to keep themselves and their families safe?
And if they felt that they had to go to keep up appearances, why were they so public about it, celebrating their invitations, posing for maskless pictures, publishing them online, and taking part in a fancy buffet as many Americans sit on interminable food bank lines? Why did they disregard local laws and the pleas of public health officials and prominent rabbis alike? Why are many of these leaders seemingly ignorant of the consequences of their choices beyond themselves? And what does it say about them and their leadership?
Judaism sets extra high standards for its leaders. We all remember the Biblical story of Moses and the rock. The Israelites complain of thirst. Moses speaks to G-d. G-d instructs Moses to speak to the rock, promising that water will gush forth. Facing a raucous crowd and fed up with their complaining, Moses loses his temper and strikes the rock instead.
For this fit of pique, Moses loses his right to enter the Promised Land. Classical commentators ponder why Moses’ punishment was so severe for a seemingly minor infraction, and many conclude that it was the poor example that Moses set for the people that justified the harsh punishment. When leaders set bad examples, their actions ripple outward, and cause others to make the same mistakes.
In too many Jewish communities, the failure of many leaders to model proper behavior and to exhort others to do the right thing has resulted in thousands of needless deaths. The actions of our leaders spread exponentially — just as viruses do.
This is a time for leaders to set positive examples by respecting the guidance of public health authorities, the statements of prominent rabbinical leaders, the law, and the sacrifices that Americans of all stripes are making to keep one another safe.
That means wearing a mask, publicly, in situations where masks are required, including for pictures. It means not attending indoor gatherings, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and parties.
And it means saying no to high-profile events, even if they are at the White House.
Mike Brenner is a longtime lay leader with AJC and a past co-chair of the New York chapter of ACCESS, AJC’s young professionals division. This op-ed is written in his own capacity.