Friday, April 22, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Passover

After Passover in the year 2000 I remember driving back from New Jersey to Manhattan after teaching a Hebrew School class. My classmate, Faith Friedman, was sitting next to me in the car telling me about how a fellow rabbinical school student had just had Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at his family's Passover seder. I listened intently to this second-hand story that David Fine had told Faith.

I couldn't believe what a great story this was. To have the First Lady and Chelsea Clinton sit at your family's Seder and participate must have made for a very impressive evening. President Bill Clinton didn't attend the Fine Family seder because he was meeting with Yasser Arafat at the time.

A few years ago I was in Berlin on a trip with fellow Conservative Rabbis and Rabbi David Fine was one of the participants. On the first night in Berlin, David offered to give me a guided walking tour of the city. After a two-hour walk he asked if I had any questions. I said, "Yes, tell me about that time the Clintons came to your parents' home for the Pesach seder."

A recent JTA article by Uriel Heilman details the entire story:

How was Helene and Bob Fine’s family seder in 2000 different from every other Passover night? First lady Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea came...

At the time, Fine was the rabbi at the Conservative Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, the Westchester County village just down the road from Chappaqua,  the New York suburb where the Clintons recently had bought a house in anticipation of Bill Clinton’s return to private life and Hillary’s run for the U.S. Senate from New York. One of the Fines’ sons, Yoni, attended Stanford University, where Chelsea Clinton also was a student. The two moved in the same circles and were friendly.

As Passover approached, Yoni mentioned to Chelsea that his parents lived just a mile or so down the road from Chappaqua and asked if she’d be in the neighborhood for spring break and would like to join them for seder. Chelsea said she’d love to and asked if she could bring her parents.

[A]t the seder, Hillary and Chelsea participated in lively discussions and stayed for about six hours, until around midnight, the Fines recalled...

There was a bevy of preparations before the Clintons arrived. The Secret Service came to the house to check things out, scoping out the bathrooms, reviewing the guest list, instructing the Fines to leave the shades closed and asking where the food came from.

During the Maggid section, which recounts the Jews’ oppression in Egypt before their eventual exodus, each participant around the table read a different section. Hillary Clinton had the part about a verse from Deuteronomy that translates as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” She talked about contemporary parallels of discrimination, including the ethnic conflict in Kosovo. Then she did a humorous riff on her own experience with wandering.

“She said, ‘My husband was a wandering politician, we went from Arkansas to Washington, we were oppressed by the press,’” Bob Fine recalled. “She just did a satire of it that was spectacular.”

During dinner, Clinton asked each of the young people around the table what they were studying, where they were from and what they wanted to do after college...

A few months after Passover, the Clintons reciprocated by inviting the Fines to the White House for a pre-Christmas event – along with 500 of the Clintons’ closest friends. When President Clinton shook their hand, he said Hillary and Chelsea told him they had a great time at the seder.

Clinton’s seder visit never made it into the papers. Fine talked about it from his pulpit the next week, but that was pretty much it.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rabbi Jason Miller

I thought about the story of Hillary and Chelsea attending the Fine Family's seder as I read Secretary Clinton's pre-Passover letter to the Jewish community. I've had the opportunity to meet Secretary Clinton twice in person and was impressed both times. The second time I met her, I was surprised that she not only remembered me, but also recalled details of our previous conversation from months earlier. I'll have an opportunity to meet her again next month when she comes to Michigan for another visit on her presidential campaign. As the best candidate on either side, I'm proud to say that "I'm with her" and I think she'll make a wonderful 45th President of the United States.

What follows is Secretary Clinton's letter, which I found to be both inspirational and eloquent:

Fighting oppression, inequality and injustice on Passover
by Hillary Clinton

I didn’t grow up celebrating Pesach. But over the years, I’ve attended seders where I was inspired by the remarkable story told in the Haggadah — a tale of a people who, sustained by fortitude and faith, escaped slavery and reached their freedom.

As Jewish people around the world prepare for this festival, I wanted to offer a few of my own thoughts on ancient lessons that still hold wisdom for today’s world.

The first is the importance of religious freedom. The book of Exodus recalls how the Pharaoh denied the Israelites the right to worship as they chose. Today, there are new threats to religious liberty and an alarming rise in anti-Semitism. In many parts of Europe, we’ve seen synagogues vandalized and gravesites desecrated. International efforts to malign and isolate the Jewish people — like the alarming BDS movement — are gaining steam.

We must confront these forces of intolerance. As New York’s senator, I sponsored laws to support restitution for victims of the Holocaust. And I joined with the Helsinki Commission to help protect and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.

As secretary of state, I stood up for oppressed religious minorities in China, Iran and around the world. If I’m fortunate enough to be elected president, I would ensure that America continues to call out and stand up to anti-Semitism. And just as Jews have always stood up for other communities, we must push back on the rising trend of anti-religious sentiment in any form.

The second lesson is the importance of caring for one another. After a hasty departure from Egypt, as the Israelites wandered for 40 long years in the Sinai, they developed a covenant with God and each other, so that no one in future generations would be left out or left behind.

I believe that same sort of social contract exists in America. We must fight any effort to weaken or privatize Medicare and Social Security, and we must finally expand benefits for widows. We must improve housing for low-income families; at their best, public and affordable housing gives families a chance to get back on their feet, afford other essentials, and give their kids a safe and healthy place to grow up. We should provide $25 billion to build more affordable housing, and up to $10,000 in down payment assistance for families looking to buy their first home.

The third and most important lesson of the book of Exodus comes at the end. So that they would never again be subjugated, the Jewish people are set to arrive at their own homeland. I’ve proudly stood with the state of Israel for my entire career, making sure it always has the resources it needs to maintain its qualitative military edge. I also worked to ensure funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system and saw its effectiveness first-hand when I worked with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza. Since its installation, this technology has saved countless lives.

Protecting allies and partners like Israel is one of the most solemn duties of any commander-in-chief. Yet others in this race suggest we must remain neutral in order to negotiate. But Israel’s safety is simply non-negotiable. And it would be a grave mistake for the United States to cede the mantle of leadership in the peace process to anyone else. For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader, and be ready and able to block any international effort to isolate or attack Israel.

There’s one final lesson in the story of the Exodus: the reminder to keep telling the story. To connect the past with the present, participants in every seder are taught to imagine that they themselves were still enslaved in Egypt.

In today’s world, many don’t have to imagine. Every year, more than 20 million people are trafficked or sold into slavery by modern-day despots and Pharaohs. In my travels as secretary of state, I met many who have escaped the contemporary forms of enslavement that continue to plague our planet. And I believe that our shared traditions — Jewish and American — give us a moral obligation to bring help and hope to those in need.

At a trafficking shelter in Kolkata, India, I met remarkable women and girls who had suffered horrible abuses and were getting their lives back on track. I’ll never forget meeting one young girl who was born into slavery in a brothel, but managed to escape with her mother. It would never be easy, but with the help of others, they were finally out of harm’s way and able to reach for their God-given potential.

This Pesach, let’s continue fighting all forms of oppression, inequality and injustice. Let’s take a page from Moses and Aaron, and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And let’s never forget to keep drawing attention to the plight of millions of people still in need of their own form of deliverance.

They are out there, waiting for us.

Chag Pesach Sameach... a very happy and healthy Passover to all.

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