By Eric Fingerhut, JTA
The first presidential seder had its origins on the campaign trail.
When the first night of Passover last year fell just three days before the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, a group of Obama staffers held an impromptu seder in the basement of a Harrisburg hotel.
Then-candidate Barack Obama attended, and after the traditional “Next Year in Jerusalem,” he and others added, “Next Year in the White House!”
That’s exactly what the president did last week when he held what is believed to have been the first-ever seder in the White House. For Obama it was the continuation of last year’s tradition, with the president inviting everyone who attended the campaign-trail seder over to the White House on April 9, the second night of Passover.
A White House spokesman said the 20-person group used Maxwell House Haggadahs and dined on a menu that included matzah ball soup, brisket, roasted chicken, noodle kugel and macaroons. Recipes were provided to the White House cooks by attendees.
The White House kitchen was not technically kashered for Passover; the spokesman said the meal was served “kosher style.” (The White House kitchen was made kosher during the Bush administration for Chanukah parties, the first time in 2006).
The macaroons, though, almost didn’t make it to the seder, said one guest.
Susan Sher, the White House associate counsel who does liaison work with the Jewish community, said her husband had brought macaroons from Chicago but had trouble getting them through security because food is not allowed to be brought into the White House. The start of the seder was delayed — with the president even offering to help solve the problem — before White House aides were able to “rescue the macaroons,” Sher said.
Word first surfaced on April 7 that Obama would be hosting a White House seder after the event appeared on the president’s schedule without details. Apparently the disclosure caused a clamor among some Jewish Obama supporters who were upset that they weren’t on the guest list, prompting one White House aide to ask that it be deleted from the schedule.
Jewish supporters “here and in neighboring states are now calling wondering why they have not been invited,” the aide wrote in an e-mail that was inadvertently attached to a copy of the president’s schedule that was sent to reporters on April 9.
Eric Lesser, the campaign staffer who put together the 2008 event and the special assistant to White House senior adviser David Axelrod, organized the seder. In addition to the first family and Sher, attendees included Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett; Obama family friend Eric Whitaker; White House videographer Arun Chaudhary; vice presidential aide Herbie Ziskend; Lisa Kohnke, the deputy director of advance and special events at the Office of Public Liaison; White House associate social secretary Samantha Tubman; the first lady’s deputy chief of staff, Melissa Winter; and Reggie Love and Dana Lewis, personal aides to the president and first lady.
Sher said the group “went around the room and took turns reading” and providing thoughts and comments during the service.
“Everyone was engaged,” said Sher. “It was lovely.”
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, said the fact that Obama hosted a seder was “very interesting and seems to be continuing a trend of an interest by the White House in things Jewish.
“The policy concerns and agenda of Jews have been on their radar for a while, but this marks a desire to familiarize themselves with the traditions of the Jewish people as well.”
He added, “Anytime people can get a better understanding of why we do what we do, it’s probably good for the Jews. Ignorance of Jewish practices historically led to unnecessary tension and even blood libels, specifically around the time of Passover.”
“We’ve come a long way, chevra,” Shemtov said.