Rabbis praise White House for working with Italy to get Sukkot citrons amid pandemic

Jewish community leaders have praised the Trump administration for its international efforts to help those observing Sukkot, while anger grows against city and state officials in New York for imposing restrictions on neighborhoods that include Orthodox communities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, several rabbis were concerned they could not travel to Italy to retrieve the citron, one of four plants (known as the “Four Species”) the Jewish people are bound to use in a special ceremony on each day of the Sukkot festival (the Sabbath excepted). The citron, which is grown in Italy, must be harvested under strict rabbinic guidance to be eligble for use in the festival.

After the Jewish leaders contacted Avraham Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, about the predicament, he reached out to the U.S. embassies in Italy and Israel, which confirmed that without immediate action, more than 100,000 observant Jews would not have been able to fulfill their religious obligation.

“We are extremely grateful to the Trump administration for immediately responding to our request for assistance after we learned that Esrog importers would not be able to enter Italy due to reciprocal COVID Travel restrictions,” Rabbi David Niederman, president of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, told Fox News in a statement.

Avraham Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, and President Trump

Avraham Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, and President Trump (Getty/AP)

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“The Trump administration acted at once when learning of the issue and reached out to the Italian Embassy to ensure that Esrogim for the Sukkos holiday can be secured this year, as in years past,” Niederman went on. “These efforts directly enabled American Jews to utilize the famed and beautiful Italian Esrogim that have been used by Jews for centuries.”

Aryeh Lightstone, senior advisor to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, told Fox News religious leaders, including Evangelicals, have been calling him to thank the Trump administration “for saving their Sukkot.”

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“This summer many of them called with grave concerns that Sukkot would be another casualty of COVID-19 as they wouldn’t be able to access the famed Italian citrons this year. I knew if anyone could accomplish this it would be Avi Berkowitz at the White House,” Lightstone said.

Many religious communities in the U.S. have described certain coronavirus lockdown orders as religious discrimination.

Children celebrate Sukkot at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel, holding up citrons.

Children celebrate Sukkot at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel, holding up citrons. (U.S. Embassy in Israel)

After New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced COVID-19 lockdowns on Sunday, the second day of Sukkot, many in the Orthodox Jewish community accused him of once again singling them out.

“People are very turned off and very burned out,” Yosef Hershkop, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who works for a chain of urgent-care centers, told the Associated Press. “It’s not like we’re the only people in New York getting COVID.”

Daniel Rosenthal, a state Assembly member from Queens, said the timing of the announcement shows “City Hall’s incompetence and lack of sensitivity towards the Jewish Community” on Twitter, but de Blasio said he was aware of the holiday and felt obligated to announce the plans as soon as it was developed.

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On Monday, New York Gov. Cuomo displayed outdated images of large gatherings of Orthodox Jews at a news conference and warned that he might close some religious institutions down if their leaders did not follow the restrictions.

De Blasio was slammed in April for dispersing a large Hasidic funeral in Brooklyn when he tweeted a warning to “the Jewish community, and all communities” against large gatherings. He was accused of a double standard while allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to flood the streets.

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