Author Archives: Paul Brandeis Raushenbush


Obama Family Celebrates Easter Sunday 2014 At Nineteenth Street Baptist Church

The Obama family is celebrating Easter Sunday at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church alongside 250 other congregants and led by the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins.

According to the White House pool, the president is rocking his head back and forth to the fab…

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Obama Family Celebrates Easter Sunday 2014 At Nineteenth Street Baptist Church

The Obama family is celebrating Easter Sunday at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church alongside 250 other congregants and led by the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins.

According to the White House pool, the President is rocking his head back and forth to the fab…

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Pope Francis Easter Message ‘Urbi Et Orbi’ (FULL TEXT)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The following is the text of the Vatican’s official English-language translation of Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for ‘to the city and to the world’) read by him in Italian from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Easter! The Church throughout the world echoes the angel’s message to the women: “Do not be afraid! I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised . Come, see the place where he lay” (Mt 28:5-6).

This is the culmination of the Gospel, it is the Good News par excellence: Jesus, who was crucified, is risen! This event is the basis of our faith and our hope. If Christ were not raised, Christianity would lose its very meaning; the whole mission of the Church would lose its impulse, for this is the point from which it first set out and continues to set out ever anew. The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.

That is why we tell everyone: “Come and see!” In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast. “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.

With this joyful certainty in our hearts, today we turn to you, risen Lord!

Help us to seek you and to find you, to realize that we have a Father and are not orphans; that we can love and adore you.

Help us to overcome the scourge of hunger, aggravated by conflicts and by the immense wastefulness for which we are often responsible.

Enable us to protect the vulnerable, especially children, women and the elderly, who are at times exploited and abandoned.

Enable us to care for our brothers and sisters struck by the Ebola epidemic in Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and to care for those suffering from so many other diseases which are also spread through neglect and dire poverty.

Comfort all those who cannot celebrate this Easter with their loved ones because they have been unjustly torn from their affections, like the many persons, priests and laity, who in various parts of the world have been kidnapped.

Comfort those who have left their own lands to migrate to places offering hope for a better future and the possibility of living their lives in dignity and, not infrequently, of freely professing their faith.

We ask you, Lord Jesus, to put an end to all war and every conflict, whether great or small, ancient or recent.

We pray in a particular way for Syria, that all those suffering the effects of the conflict can receive needed humanitarian aid and that neither side will again use deadly force, especially against the defenseless civil population, but instead boldly negotiate the peace long awaited and long overdue!

We ask you to comfort the victims of fratricidal acts of violence in Iraq and to sustain the hopes raised by the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

We beg for an end to the conflicts in the Central African Republic and a halt to the brutal terrorist attacks in parts of Nigeria and the acts of violence in South Sudan.

We ask that hearts be turned to reconciliation and fraternal concord in Venezuela.

By your resurrection, which this year we celebrate together with the Churches that follow the Julian calendar, we ask you to enlighten and inspire the intiatives that promote peace in Ukraine so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence and, in a spirit of unity and dialogue, chart a path for the country’s future.

Lord, we pray to you for all the peoples of the earth: You who have conquered death, grant us your life, grant us your peace!”

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Easter In Holy Land Celebrated By Pilgrims

JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of pilgrims from around the world are celebrating Easter in the Holy Land, commemorating the day when according to Christian tradition Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem two millennia ago.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led Mass at the Holy Sepulcher church in Jerusalem on Sunday. The site is where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, worshippers prayed and lit candles at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Easter was also celebrated in Gaza where less than three thousand Christians live among about 1.7 million Muslims.

Christian communities in the Holy Land, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, have been declining in recent years due to regional turmoil.

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Pope Francis Celebrates Easter Sunday With Huge Crowds In St. Peter’s Square At Vatican (PHOTOS)

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY, April 20 (Reuters) – Pope Francis, in his Easter address before a huge crowd, on Sunday denounced the “immense wastefulness” in the world while many go hungry and called for an end to conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Af…

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Pope Francis At Easter Vigil Baptizes 10; Asks All To Remember Faith In Sermon (FULL TEXT) (PHOTOS)

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis baptized 10 people Saturday and urged them to bring their faith “to the ends of the Earth” as he presided over an Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The vigil is among the Vatican’s most solemn services. Francis entered the darkened basilica with a lone candle, which he then shared with others to slowly illuminate the church. The symbolic service commemorates the darkness of the faithful over the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday and their joy and light at his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Francis urged the priests, bishops, cardinals and ordinary Catholics gathered for the late night service to remember when they first found their faith. “Do I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Look for it. You’ll find it. The Lord is waiting.”

Trying to remember isn’t an act of nostalgia but rather a way to bring the “fire” of faith “to all people, to the very ends of the Earth,” he said.

After his homily, Francis proceeded to baptize each of the 10, starting with Italian brothers Giorgio and Jacopo, aged 8 and 10. “Do you want to be baptized?” he asked each one as he smiled.

He asked the same of the adult converts, who hailed from Vietnam, Belarus, Senegal, Lebanon, Italy and France.

It was the second late night for Francis after the long Good Friday Way of the Cross procession at Rome’s Colosseum. Francis, 77, will get a few hours of rest before celebrating Easter Sunday Mass in the flower-strewn St. Peter’s Square.

He then has a week to prepare for the other major celebration of this year’s Easter season: the April 27 canonizations of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend.

Full Text of Sermon via National Catholic Register:

“The Gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ begins with the journey of the women to the tomb at dawn on the day after the Sabbath. They go to the tomb to honour the body of the Lord, but they find it open and empty. A mighty angel says to them: “Do not be afraid!” (Mt 28:5) and orders them to go and tell the disciples: “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee” (v. 7). The women quickly depart and on the way Jesus himself meets them and says: “Do not fear; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).

After the death of the Master, the disciples had scattered; their faith had been utterly shaken, everything seemed over, all their certainties had crumbled and their hopes had died. But now that message of the women, incredible as it was, came to them like a ray of light in the darkness. The news spread: Jesus is risen as he said. And then there was his command to go to Galilee; the women had heard it twice, first from the angel and then from Jesus himself: “Let them go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

Galilee is the place where they were first called, where everything began! To return there, to return to the place where they were originally called. Jesus had walked along the shores of the lake as the fishermen were casting their nets. He had called them, and they left everything and followed him (cf. Mt 4:18-22).

To return to Galilee means to re-read everything on the basis of the cross and its victory. To re-read everything – Jesus’ preaching, his miracles, the new community, the excitement and the defections, even the betrayal – to re-read everything starting from the end, which is a new beginning, from this supreme act of love.

For each of us, too, there is a “Galilee” at the origin of our journey with Jesus. “To go to Galilee” means something beautiful, it means rediscovering our baptism as a living fountainhead, drawing new energy from the sources of our faith and our Christian experience. To return to Galilee means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey. From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters. That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.

In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also a more existential “Galilee”: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission. In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him. It means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.

Today, tonight, each of us can ask: What is my Galilee? Where is my Galilee? Do I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it? Lord, help me: tell me what my Galilee is; for you know that I want to return there to encounter you and to let myself be embraced by your mercy.

The Gospel of Easter is very clear: we need to go back there, to see Jesus risen, and to become witnesses of his resurrection. This is not to go back in time; it is not a kind of nostalgia. It is returning to our first love, in order to receive the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world and to bring that fire to all people, to the very ends of the earth.

“Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt 4:15; Is 8:23)! Horizon of the Risen Lord, horizon of the Church; intense desire of encounter… Let us be on our way!”

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Easter 2014: Photos Of Christians Around The World Celebrating The Resurrection Of Jesus

Christians around the world celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ with vigils, services, fireworks and, of course, Easter Eggs.

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Holy Fire Easter Ceremony Draws Orthodox Christians To Church Of The Holy Sepulcher In Jerusalem (PHOTOS) (VIDEO)

JERUSALEM (AP) — The dark hall inside Christianity’s holiest shrine was illuminated with the flames from thousands of candles on Saturday as worshippers participated in the holy fire ceremony, a momentous spiritual event in Orthodox Easter rites.

Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected at the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the source of the holy fire is a closely guarded secret, believers say the flame appears spontaneously from his tomb on the day before Easter to show Jesus has not forgotten his followers. The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years.

Thousands of Christians waited outside the church for it to open Saturday morning. Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by a number of denominations that jealously guard their responsibilities under a fragile network of agreements hammered out over the last millennia. In accordance with tradition, the church’s doors were unlocked by a member of a Muslim family, who for centuries has been the keeper of the ancient key that is passed on within the family from generation to generation.

Once inside, clergymen from the various Orthodox denominations in robes and hoods jostled for space with local worshippers and pilgrims from around the world.

Top Orthodox clergymen descended into the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb as worshippers eagerly waited in the dim church clutching bundles of unlit candles and torches.

After a while, candles emerged lit with “holy fire” — said to have been lit by a miracle as a message to the faithful from heaven.

Bells rang as worshippers rushed to use the flames to ignite their own candles.

In mere seconds, the bursts of light spread throughout the cavernous church as flames jumped from one candle to another. Clouds of smoke wafted through the crammed hall as flashes from cameras and mobile phones documented what is for many, the spiritual event of a lifetime.

Some held light from the “holy fire” to their faces to bask in the glow while others dripped wax on their bodies.Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said tens of thousands of worshippers participated in the ceremony.

Many couldn’t fit inside the church and the narrow winding streets of the Old City were lined with pilgrims.

The “holy fire” was passed among worshippers outside the Church and then taken to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where tradition holds Jesus was born, and from there to other Christian communities in Israel and the West Bank.

Later it is taken aboard special flights to Athens and other cities, linking many of the 200 million Orthodox worldwide.

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Good Friday Celebration Showing Interfaith Bridges Christians And Muslims Are Building In Ethnically Split Cyprus

FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus (AP) — An unexpected moment during the Good Friday service in a long-abandoned church in Cyprus’ breakaway north illustrated how religion is helping to bring together Christian Greek Cypriots and Muslim Turkish Cypriots on this ethnically divided island.

It came when Turkish Cypriot Umit Inatci handed the key of the church of Agios Georgios Exorinos in the medieval center of Famagusta to the city’s Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Vasilios, saying: “This is not gift, it’s something that is surrendered to its owner.” Rapturous applause greeted the announcement by Inatci, who helped make possible the first Holy Week service at the 14th-century church in nearly 60 years.

Among the hundreds of faithful there was Mikis Lakatamitis, who was baptized at the church eight decades ago. Tears welled up in his eyes as worshippers lined up nearby to kiss an embroidered cloth depicting Christ’s preparation for burial.

“I want to live in this moment because I don’t know if I’ll relive it again,” said Lakatamitis, whose family abandoned their nearby home at the start of ethnic strife in the late 1950s.

Cyprus was divided along ethnic lines in 1974 into a Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north after Turkey invaded following a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece.

For decades, there was no contact between the religious leaders of the two communities. In the north, about 500 churches and monasteries — many hundreds of years old — were left to ruin, looted or converted for other uses. In the south, only eight of about 110 mosques still operate.

But that changed in 2009 with a kind of faith-based diplomacy that has quietly been conducted between the leader of the island’s Greek Orthodox Christian Church Archbishop Chrysostomos II and Turkish Cypriot Muslim Grand Mufti Talip Atalay.

“We have to give a good example to the Middle East,” Atalay told The Associated Press. “This is our gift to the Middle East.”

The Good Friday service was the result of a grassroots initiative by ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots seeking to chip away at the wall of mistrust built up over decades.

“Perhaps we all understood that being constantly at odds with each other is getting us nowhere,” said Nikos Karoullas, a member of the citizens’ movement that spawned the initiative. Karoullas said Turkish Cypriots warmly embraced the idea of the church service. Abandoned since the late 1950s, the church was later used as a cultural center by a nearby university.

“This helps us to understand that we share the same country,” said 35-year-old Xenia Constantinou. Katerina Mina, whose parents hail from Famagusta, said she’s hopeful for a permanent peace that make such services routine rather than the exception.

Although the island’s conflict was never about religion, clerics have played an outsized political role in the past. The conflict that has left Nicosia as the world’s last divided capital boils down to power sharing and territorial control between the majority Greek Cypriots and minority Turkish Cypriots. But the Good Friday service is viewed as an example of how religion can help mend the island’s ethnic division in a part of the world where it has often been used to drive a wedge between people.

The archbishop has historically wielded great influence over the Greek Cypriots as the guardian of their ethnic identity— a vestige of the island’s Ottoman-ruled past. That culminated in the 1960 election of Archbishop Makarios III as Cyprus’ first president after independence from British rule. The charismatic Makarios held on to power until his death in 1977 effectively ended a blurring of lines between church and state.

The church’s influence over political matters has faded to the point where it can no longer sway public opinion, University of Nicosia Law Professor Achilles Emilianides said.

But Chrysostomos, a firebrand who famously told Pope Benedict XVI on a 2010 visit to Cyprus that Turkey seeks to conquer the entire island and erase Greek and Christian culture from the north, remains a force.

A recent poll showed most Greek Cypriots view the Orthodox Church as the only credible institution in the wake of the country’s recent near-bankruptcy.

The faith-based meetings have produced small — but symbolically significant — steps. Last October, they agreed on lifting bans preventing Atalay and an Orthodox bishop from crossing into the south and the north respectively. Chrysostomos for the first time accepted Atalay’s invitation to a meal at his office in the north.

Equally significant was an unprecedented, united call of support for renewed reunification talks between Nicos Anastasiades, president of the south’s internationally recognized government and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.

Anastasiades hailed the religious rapprochement as proof of “the positive role that religion can play in resolving political and other differences.”

The positive vibes from the religious leaders’ meetings have also helped the work of a joint Greek and Turkish Cypriot committee tasked with restoring places of worship and other monuments across the island, including starting work on the highly revered but crumbling Apostolos Andreas monastery.

“All places of worship should be respected fully and unconditionally, wherever they may be located,” Atalay said.

Atalay said meetings can help break down “psychological barriers” such as extremist views which obstruct peace, just as long as religious leaders refrain from making political remarks.

“We as religious leaders are obliged to use a different language than the politicians, otherwise a solution will never come,” he said.

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Good Friday On Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa Marked By Christians Commemorating Jesus’ Crucifixion (PHOTOS)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Christians in the Holy Land are commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Good Friday prayers and processions through Jerusalem’s Old City.

good friday old city

Thousands of Christian pilgrims filled the cobblestone alleyways of the Old City on Friday along the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Way of Suffering.”

good friday old city They are carrying wooden crosses and following the 14 stations ending at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Tradition says the church was built on the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The Easter holiday and Jewish Passover coincide this year.

good friday old city

According to the Gospels, Jesus ate his last supper — a Passover meal — hours before he was betrayed. Christians believe Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Sunday.

good friday old city

good friday old city

good friday old city

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How Three Jewish Junior Obama Staffers Brought The First Passover Seder To The White House

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.

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.

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.

Arun: It was impressive. I have to give him credit there, it was an impressive little kit.

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.

Paul: You were going to do a speed Haggadah and he was not having it.

Arun: Were from very Reform families and usually the question is, will this be about a half hour before I get to dinner.

Herbie: Remember we had started that day on a train at 7am in Philly on a whistle stop tour. It was a long day, and it was the longest stretch of the campaign. It was our desert moment. Senator Clinton was making a big comeback. We thought we were going to win but it was unclear at the time. And everyone was tired after a long day of campaigning and then the Senator is saying: “Is this the Seder?” it was almost remarkable that everyone had the energy to get together and do it.

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?

Arun: And it was also some people’s first Seder. So there were questions about what to do with the plates and other things; which was great for me, Eric and Herbie who have been to a lot of Seders but have never led one and we took a collective role of leading.

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: I find that amazing.

Arun: Because it felt even more like that at the White House that year. You’re actually at the building where you’ve been busting your ass every day- but even then, those few hours that we were able to spend doing the Seder, I think for the First Family and for us really does feel like this pause- a real moment of reflection. You know, it’s been a year since we did this, it’s going to be the same people, a lot of the same conversations even, just like any family. You know, the President makes fun of me because I every year make the speech about Hillel Sandwich- I’m very impressed with Hillel Sandwich- I find it to be an extraordinary piece of Jewish technology that is not necessarily as lauded as it needs to be. And so I make this speech about it every year. And I remember one year we were running behind, and so I said, “I don’t want to make this speech,” and the President was like, “You gotta make the speech! That’s what you do every year- it’s your thing.” And it feels very much like a family, very much like tradition, and that’s why I think it’s so important to everyone to go.

Herbie: Each year that we’ve done it- every year since the in the White House, in the old family dining room, and the President always starts by remembering the story of the first one in ’08, and talking about how important it was to him at the time, and to the team, and how it has become something that he really loves doing every year. He brings the First Lady and his daughters, and his daughters are the youngest ones at the table, so the story of Passover is always told to the youngest people there and so it’s directed towards them. And what we notice every year is that despite the fact that you have to go past Secret Service and you’re in this historic building, and you’re with people who are helping to run the country, it’s just like any other Seder. The same jokes- I go out every year and I hide the afikomen, and one year I hid the afikomen and the daughters went out to look for it and I realized that I forgot where I hid it. So things go wrong- I think one year we were about to start and we had forgotten matches.

One year the macaroons got quarantined by the Secret Service on their way in, because we hadn’t pre-cleared it, which was definitely a White House Seder Problem. That’s going to be a hashtag.

Paul: So let me ask you, there’s this perception about the President that he doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve and some people complain about that. How do you guys understand the President as a spiritual or a religious person?

Arun: I think that he takes his spirituality and religious convictions extraordinarily seriously, but also very privately. I think he likes to demonstrate it through deeds- whether it’s comforting folks in times of need, or even something like hosting a White House Seder, rather than always kind of harping on. He’s always been someone who’s more of a show-you-his-religion person, rather than a tell-you-his-religion person. And I think that the Seder speaks volumes to that, and it is not a political event. Jewish advocates, people who inform Jewish public opinion in elections, are not the people who come to the Seder. It is like a real spiritual experience, what a Seder is to the people who are at hand, the people who are trying to make it. I think all of the other guys can fill in from there, but that’s definitely something that I feel very strongly about.

Herbie: There’s a strong connection between the African-American community and the Jewish community, and in terms of the story of the Exodus, and the fight to become free and live in dignity, and during the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans and Jews were working together. And so, this idea of becoming free, and both for groups and individuals at a personal level is something that I think we all feel when we do the Seder at the White House. We now, for the last few years, have been reading the Emancipation Proclamation and everyone goes around and reads a different verse form the Emancipation Proclamation- and so the story is related to more current times. And you know as we’ve said, it’s not political, it’s like a very typical Seder- but of course, it’s in the White House, and it’s the first year we did it on Truman silverware- and Truman was the first president to recognize Israel. Last year, I think Arun’s grandmother’s Seder plate was bumped because Sara Netanyahu gave a seder plate..

Arun (interjects)- No, worse than that, it was my Mother-in-law’s Seder plate that was bumped in favor of Netanyahu’s Seder plate!

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-

Arun- I actually remember. Between us and an empty ballroom- not ballroom, but you know how they have those sort of modular spaces around- you know those horrible hotels with the folding walls? The next folding wall over was an empty room, and we just peeled back a little bit of that, to the next empty, windowless section of the Sheraton in Harrisburg.

Paul: Sounds so glamorous. How do you think this has changed you? How do you think this has changed your faith- this experience?

Herbie: It reinforced that no matter where you are in your life, and no matter what you’re doing, that stopping and pausing every year to remember the story of the Exodus, is both necessary and realistic. Because if you look at where we all were in 2008, our lives were about to dramatically change. Obviously the senator’s life changed the most, but all of our lives changed, too. We went on to Washington, we had jobs in the White House for the new president, a president who made history just by winning, and yet, despite all that was happening around us in all of our lives, each year we would stop, and we continue to stop, pause, and remember the story. So for me, on a personal level, it has reinforced that for the rest of my life I want to make sure that for me and for my family, I take the time to stop, tell the story of Passover, do a Seder, and allow myself and those around me to pause and understand why this is so important. An event that occurred 3,000 years ago, why it still matters today in our own lives.

Arun: I feel like it’s always valuable to see something- no matter how important it is to you, like Passover- through the eyes of others. It forces you naturally to reexamine the process, reexamine what’s important to you about the ritual, and it’s just something that I’m grateful to have- like Herbie says- to have taken the pause.

Eric: I have two main takeaways that I have gotten from it. 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.

Herbie: It’s particularly meaningful to me because this year, for the first time, I’m bringing my grandmother, who lived in the same town as the one that I grew up in- this is the first time she’s coming to the White House for this, and for that generation to see this happen, and for her to have the amazing privilege of attending, is just so moving for me and for my family. And it just kind of shows how special and incredible this story truly is.

Paul: Last question. In two years, 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?

Arun: We have to keep doing this together, that’s for sure. You know, location-wise- I think maybe it’s going to have to be rotating? I don’t know guys, what do you think?

Herbie: I think like all Jewish families, when we gather we’ll probably say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Eric: We’ll leave it to the President to make the suggestion, he’ll give us the clue in 2016.


white house seder

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Palm Sunday Photos 2014: Christians Celebrate Around The World

Christians around the world celebrate the beginning of Holy Week with Palm Sunday; a day that commemorates when Jesus entered Jerusalem and was greeted by followers waving palms as described in the Christian Gospel of John.

They took palm branches and…

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Pope Francis Personally Takes On Evil Of Priest Sex Abuse, Asks For Forgiveness

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis asked for forgiveness Friday from people who were sexually abused by priests, and vowed that there will be no going back in the church’s fight to protect children.

Francis made the off-the-cuff remarks after coming und…

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Pope Francis Treats Faithful To Copies Of The Gospels In St. Peter’s Square

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Tens of thousands of faithful in St. Peter’s Square have been treated to gifts from Pope Francis — pocket-sized copies of the Gospels which he hopes they’ll keep handy and read daily.

The scriptures were handed out by volunteers after the pope’s traditional Sunday appearance to pilgrims and tourists in the square. The pope did ask for something in return, telling them: “In exchange for this gift, perform an act of charity.” He said such an act might be praying for an enemy, for example.

Last fall, the pope had volunteers distribute free rosaries in boxes resembling pill packets, likening them to spiritual medicine.

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Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory To Sell $2.2 Million Mansion

SMYRNA, Ga. (AP) — The archbishop of Atlanta says he has decided to sell his $2.2 million residence following a storm of criticism from parishioners.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory said Saturday that he will leave the Tudor-style residence in the exclusiv…

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