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White House Chanukah

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

For years, I watched as friends and colleagues posted photos of the White House Chanukah party. The exclusive gathering brings together prominent rabbis, politicians and Jewish communal leaders, as well as young Jewish innovators with a certain hipness factor. 

Still, no one is 100 percent sure how someone gets invited. Those who go are awed, those who watch it all on social media are jealous — and wonder what they could do in order to score an invitation to next year’s party. 

For years, I was among the jealous and wondering, but I understood not being invited. Until this year, I was just a freelancer, proud of my work, but not an innovator. At best, I was innovation-adjacent. Two years ago, when an invited friend wrote my Twitter handle on a napkin and held it up for a photo under the presidential seal, I was certain that was as close as I was going to get. 

Then, this year, I was invited. I reposted the napkin photo on Facebook, noting that it took two years from name-written-on-napkin to actual White House invitation. If anyone wanted me to write their names on a napkin, I joked, they should let me know. Expecting a few comments of “Haha!” and “Have fun!” I saw the post rise to more than 580 likes and 100 enthusiastic, if slightly jealous, comments. 

While a remarkable number of people thought this was truly how people were nominated for future attendance at #WHHanukkah — the official tag — I also realized I could give them the same feeling I had when my Twitter name represented me in 2013. I could bring them all with me virtually, give them the next best thing to being there.

I tracked the names of respondents and asked them a few other questions out of curiosity. What were their top concerns or issues, I wondered, providing a “check as many as you want” option (immigration, gun control, the war on terror, women’s rights, religious freedom, Internet privacy, health care, racism, LGBT issues and education) and a write-in option. And I also asked if they had any general questions for me about the experience.

When I received more than 50 responses, it became a bit of a social experiment. Who was responding and what were they concerned about? Their answers were fascinating and funny, ranging from the curious to the comedic. 

Not surprisingly, many wanted to know about the food: whether the latkes were “more like spider shreds or more mushed-up into a solid lump,” and, of course, whether there was applesauce or sour cream. (FYI, the latkes were small circles, neither shredded nor lumpy, and were accompanied by applesauce.) 

Most also checked off gun control, health care, education and immigration as their top issues of concern. One person wrote in “environment,” while a few added Israel-related issues such as “Israel security,” “U.S./Israel relations” and “political support for Israel.” Write-ins of “Scary Trump,” “getting a Democrat elected” and “Bartlet for America” (referring to “The West Wing” president played by Martin Sheen), alluded to the 2016 election. And one wrote, “Mostly I just want the government to stay out of my uterus.” 

I understood that this was an opportunity for me to attend not just as myself, but as a representative of a huge online community. I brought the list with me, and took a photo with it under the portrait of Abraham Lincoln, immediately sharing it on Facebook. (That post got more than 300 comments and a few Jewish geography inquiries trying to identify the other guests in the background). I’d promised to write everyone’s name on napkins and take photos — just like the one with my Twitter handle — but didn’t want to spend 20 minutes of the experience scribbling while the event went on around me. So I pocketed a bunch of White House cocktail napkins and promised I’d do it later, pretty sure at this point that they had no real role in nominating future attendees. 

Being there was incredible. And it was an honor. But it was also an enormous event: Who I was and why I’d been invited wasn’t relevant because no one really cared. POTUS and FLOTUS nicely spent a good bit of time shaking hands and schmoozing with those of us in the front two lines, but the fact is, my presence there meant more to me than to them. 

The day after, the photos and their comments were proof that it wasn’t just me in that room. I’d brought my community with me. 

Flying back from DC, I found myself thinking of the e.e. cummings poem: “i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).” I often feel this way about my larger Internet community, people around the world — mostly Jews, but also Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths or no faiths — who have shared parts of my path with me, wherever it leads.

In my heart, I always carry my community as a whole entity and as the individuals that it comprises. And in this particular, probably once-in-a-lifetime case, I also carried my community in my bag, scrawled on napkins from the White House.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal. She is also editorial director of groknation.com, and freelances widely as a writer and consultant. 

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