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White House Seder -- by invitation only

President Obama broke new ground Thursday by personally hosting a White House Seder dinner for the Jewish holiday of Passover. But by limiting invitees to an exclusive group of staffers and family, he apparently irritated some constituents.

When the White House announced the Seder, Jewish leaders from the Washington area began calling wondering where their invitations were, according to White House e-mails accidentally distributed to the press.

“Apparently Jewish [residents] here and in neighboring states are now calling wondering why they have not been invited,” one staffer wrote, asking to take the event off the public schedule.

The White House, which kept the dinner on the schedule because it had been announced, would not say who had sought invitations.

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First Lady Michelle Obama’s Jewish cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye of Chicago, thought that though Seders are traditionally held in the spirit of inclusiveness, it might be a bit much to host all those seeking to celebrate at the White House.

“I would hope that there would be a sense of understanding that . . . also, Seder is about family,” said Funnye, a convert to Judaism, who was not at the White House. “I think you would certainly have to limit it. . . . You want to be inclusive, but you also want to be prudent in being inclusive as well.”

Most of those invited had also attended a Seder dinner last year on the campaign trail in Harrisburg, Pa. When campaign workers couldn’t get home to celebrate the holiday with their families, they organized a celebration in the Sheraton Hotel’s basement.

Jewish tradition at a Seder is to say “next year, in Jerusalem,” but according to Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the attendees set their sights instead on the White House. Both Seder dinners were planned by Eric Lesser, aide of senior advisor David Axelrod, Gibbs said.

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Two of the highest-profile Jewish members of the administration did not plan on attending this year’s Seder: Axelrod and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisors, and family friend Eric Whitaker were among those invited. Gibbs said about 17 to 20 were expected to attend.

Though Seders had been held at the White House before, aides said, they believed this was the first attended by the president.

The Seder served a kosher-style spread including matzo, bitter herbs, a roasted egg and greens in the White House’s old family dining room.

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The event was lauded by at least one Jewish group, the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“By hosting the first presidential Seder in America’s history, President Barack Obama shows the personal and deep relationship he has with the Jewish community,” Deputy Executive Director Alexis C. Rice told the Associated Press. “There is no question, Obama is a true friend of the Jewish community.”

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bmeyerson@tribune.com

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