Thursday, April 17, 2014

The White House Passover Seder Tradition (As Told By Eric Lesser)

I led a Birthright Israel trip in December 2004 with half of the college student participants on our bus from the University of Michigan and the other half from Harvard. Before the trip I was a little concerned as to how the two groups of students would get along on the ten day experience.

However, not only did the Harvard and Michigan undergrads get along great in Israel, but there were some lifelong friendships that were formed. I had a wonderful time co-leading the trip with Gabi Soble, a kindhearted, talented staff member from Harvard Hillel. I also got to know some really impressive young people from Harvard including Eric Lesser. It was clear to me that Eric would go on to do big things in his career and the former President Obama aide is currently on leave from Harvard Law School to run for State Senate in Massachusetts. Of course, he has my full endorsement.

Eric Lesser for State Senate - Rabbi Jason Miller (Israel)
On a Birthright Israel trip with Eric Lesser packing food for the homeless in Israel

Eric Lesser will have many claims to fame in his future career, but currently he is well known as one of the three guys (Herbie Ziskend and Arun Chaudhary were the other two) who started the tradition of Passover Seders in the Obama White House. Once again this year, Eric and his wife Alison Silber were guests at Michelle and Barack Obama's seder table for the annual Passover tradition.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, my colleague at the Huffington Post and the editor of HuffPost Religion, interviewed Eric about the now well publicized White House Pesach Seders. Raushenbush writes, "April 19, 2008 was a low point in Senator Obama's campaign to be the Democratic Presidential candidate. Senator Clinton had recently won the Ohio primary, Rev. Jeremiah Wright was in the news and the momentum appeared to turning away from the Junior Senator from Illinois. It was also Passover; and three Jewish junior staffers on the campaign realized there was no way they would be able to be with their families. Eric Lesser, Herbie Ziskend, and Arun Chaudhary decided to throw together an impromptu Seder at 9:30 at the end of a long day in what they describe as a 'dank, windowless, meeting room' in the Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania."

Barack Obama White House Passover Seder
President Obama and Eric Lesser taking wine out of their glasses for each of the ten plagues
"What they had not anticipated was that Obama would show up. And so began a tradition of a small group of people celebrating the Passover Seder together, that in 2009 made history as the first Seder to be celebrated in the White House. The three men have since left the White House, where they worked for a few years following the first Obama campaign, but on Tuesday, April 15th they will again join President Obama at the White House for the annual Seder, just as they have for the last six years."

"Lesser, who is a candidate for state senate in hometown of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Ziskend who serves as Chief of Staff to Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post, and Chaudhary who is a Partner at Revolution Messaging, a communications firm in Washington DC got on the phone with HuffPost Executive Religion Editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush to share exactly how this historic White House Passover tradition began and how it has changed both their lives and the lives of American Jews."

President Obama White House Passover Seder
Eric Lesser sits next to President Obama at one of the White House Passover Seders

I've included Paul's questions and Eric's responses below:
Paul: Ok, so you are three Jews with then Senator Obama, you’re on the campaign trail in 2008 and Passover happens. How did you decide to do a Seder at all?

Eric: So, we were the only Jews out of 9 or 10 traveling full time with the President. It was basically impossible for us to get home for Passover. I had chatted a bit with Arun and with Herbie who was going to be on the ground doing advance that night and we decided to do an impromptu Seder.

It was in the middle of the Pennsylvania primary and it was a very tough phase of the campaign. We were going to be in Harrisburg the first night at the end of a very long day of a whistle stop tour that was starting in Philadelphia and ending in Harrisburg. My job was to drive ahead of everybody to the hotel at Harrisburg so, on the fly I called my cousin who was at University of Pennsylvania and he raided the Penn Hillel for an emergency Seder box.

Eric: So, my cousin snatched some macaroons, some Manischewitz, some matzoh, and a bunch of Maxwell House Haggadahs and threw them in a box and gave it to me that morning. When I got everything set at the hotel I was able to find a dank, windowless meeting room at the basement of the Sheraton that nobody was using. And that turned into our makeshift Seder room.

Eric: So, Arun and Herbie got there around 9:30 that night and it was really going to be just Herbie and I, and anyone else who wanted to join us to have a quick, impromptu Seder; which is kind of the best tradition of the Seder, that you just invite whomever is around. So, we were just going to do something quick to mark the holiday and continue on with the campaign.

So, just as Arun, Herbie and I, along with a couple of other staff members who joined us were about to sit down, then Senator Obama popped his head in and said, ‘Hey, is this the Seder?’

And we were a little taken aback and said, ‘yeah, of course.’ It turns out that he had been to nine Seders in a row before that one, and that Michelle (Obama) and his daughters were at a Seder that night in Chicago. So he was eager to participate.

The funny thing is that Arun and Herbie and I were planning a pretty casual Seder and the President, well, then he was a Senator, can be a pretty intense guy. So when we sat down he was very fluent in the story, he knows the story of Exodus of course, and we actually went through the entire Haggadah.

Eric: The senator said something pretty sweet at the time. When I was kicking things off I said this is a little bittersweet because I am normally with my family on Passover, and Arun, Herbie and I wanted to at least mark the holiday even though we are going to be away from family. And the Senator stopped us and said: ‘Well, you are with family.’

Paul: Who was in the room?

Eric: The three of us, Senator Obama, Valerie Jarrett, another friend from Chicago Eric Whitaker, Reggie Love, Samantha Tubman, Jen Psaki and Cookie Offerman.

Paul: How did you start? How did you decide who was going to read what?

Eric: The event would be recognizable to any Jewish family that celebrates the Seder. There was a little awkwardness figuring out where to start and then we just kind of went around. Everyone took turns reading portions. Obama was, is, very familiar with the story and the law professor in him is very interested in the intellectual give and take aspects of the Seder so he asked questions like: What’s the significance of this? How do you celebrate it with your family?

Eric: And at the end everybody raises their glasses and there is a tradition when you say: Next year in Jerusalem. So we all raised our glasses and said ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ and then we all put our glasses down and then Obama raised his glass and said: ‘Next year in the White House.’ And we all said yes, and raised our glasses. It was a very poignant moments because it was really one of the lowest points within the 2008 campaign.

Eric: Fast forward a year later and Arun, Herbie and I are all working in the White House and Obama, of course, is president. I was working as a special assistant to David Axelrod in my little cubby hole next to David’s office was just 40 feet off the Oval Office and it was around this time and the president just poked his head in one day and said “Hey, Lesser, we’re doing the Seder again right? I promised ‘next year in the White House’ and here we are!”

And we were all like, “yeah, sure, let’s do it!” But it was really driven by him and he remembered it. And he had said to many of his friends and many people that it was among his best memories from the campaign because it was such a unique night. I mean, he can’t go anywhere without a million reporters spotting everything he does. And that Seder was a pause- which is what a Seder is supposed to be, there’s a reason that you recline. One of the four questions is “why do we recline?” And that’s really what it was! It was a chance for all of us to pause, to tell the story, and to connect about the meaning of the holiday. And then of course everyone went back, we all went back to running a million miles an hour the next morning. And fast forward a year later and we’re at the White House, and it’s time for what became the first Seder celebrated by a president in the White House in American history.

Paul: When did the Emancipation Proclamation get incorporated and whose idea was that?

Eric: It was Eric Whittaker, who’s a close personal friend of the Obamas from Chicago, and he was there in Harrisburg with us the first time- he always flies back, he comes back to Washington for the Seder each year- and it was his idea which we all, of course loved- to incorporate the Emancipation Proclamation. And we traditionally read it right after the welcoming of Elijah, which occurs after the meal. And a funny aside on that: there’s a tradition in Jewish homes that you open the front door when you welcome Elijah -- because in Jewish tradition the coming of Elijah presages the coming of the Messiah -- and so you want to welcome Elijah in so that the Messiah can come in. And there’s a beautiful song that you sing as this is going on, and the front door of the home is opened. And we realized logistically the first year that opening the front door of the White House isn’t exactly realistic (laughs). So we just opened the door into the hallway.

Paul: And what did you do when you were in the Harrisburg hotel?

Eric: That’s a good question. I don’t exactly remember- I think we just opened the door to the hallway then too-

President Obama White House Pesach Seder
President Obama reads from the Passover Haggadah; Eric Lesser sits across from Michelle and the Obama daughters
At the end of the interview, Eric leaves us with two main takeaways that he's gotten from these annual Passover seders:

The first is that the universalism in many ways of the Passover story. I had internalized the story, the Jewish story, from growing up and celebrating it at my synagogue, and with my family at home in Massachusetts, and what you realize and appreciate is that there are universal elements to the story of Passover that everybody has a piece of, that everybody can identify with, which is you know, the struggle for freedom, the concept of redemption and the social justice.

You know, all groups, particularly the African-American community certainly has much that they can find significant. So that was a very fulfilling realization personally for me, which was that this holiday that we know as a Jewish holiday, is a holiday that celebrates universal themes, and that everybody in the country can find attachment to. That’s the first place, that really changed me.

The second is that, on a very basic level, it really kind of shows that anything is possible, doesn’t it? I mean, the idea that the first African-American president would be celebrating the first Seder in the White House- you know, my grandmother who recently passed away, but who was living in an assisted-living center in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn- the very first year when my aunt brought her the picture of us all celebrating the Seder at the White House, she couldn’t believe it! She thought that that was never possible- a group of people that had survived the Holocaust and moved to the United States and were considered outsiders could now be sitting in the White House celebrating a Seder with the first African-American President- I mean, even just a few years ago everybody would have thought this kind of a scenario would be impossible.

Eric Lesser and President Obama White House Pesach Seder
White House aides Eric Lesser and Lisa Kohnke at the 2013 Passover Seder at the White House with President Obama
Before leaving the interview, Raushenbush asks Eric one last question and it has to do with whether these Obama seders will continue post-2016: "In two years," Raushenbush asks, "at the end, let’s say, next year in Jerusalem, then there will be one more question, maybe one more toast. Where do you think it’ll be?"

Without hesitation, Eric Lesser says, "We’ll leave it to the President to make the suggestion, he’ll give us the clue in 2016."

It's certainly been fun seeing the photos each year from these Passover seders that Eric Lesser helped start and hearing his tales from the experience. I'm looking forward to following Eric's career in politics. Something tells me it will be very exciting to watch.

Eric Lesser and his family with President Barack Obama

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