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.