Eric Lesser remembers Passover 2008 well. Now a state senator from Western Massachusetts, Lesser was a staffer at the time for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. During the Democratic primary battle against Hillary Clinton, it seemed unlikely that Lesser would get home to Massachusetts for Passover. The resulting chain of events would lead to a historic moment and a new holiday tradition: Seders in the White House.
It all began when Lesser decided to have an impromptu Seder at a campaign stop in Harrisburg, Pa. He told the Jewish Journal that he casually mentioned it to Obama in a phone call. “Obama said, ‘I’ll try to come,’” Lesser recalled.
Lesser planned the Seder with two friends who were colleagues on the Obama campaign: Herbie Ziskend, a Newton native, and Arun Chaudhary. Lesser’s cousin at UPenn Hillel provided a package of shmurah matzah, Manischewitz wine, a can of macaroons, jars of gefilte fish and Maxwell House Haggadahs.
As Lesser recalled, “It was a very tough period of the campaign for Obama. The controversy around his former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was just breaking. [Pennsylvania] was a tough state for Obama in the primary … Frankly, it was kind of the low point for the Obama campaign.”
Yet during the Seder, “all of a sudden, Obama popped in” and asked if the Seder was taking place. “He asked if he could join.”
Lesser noted that Obama had attended “many Seders in the past” and at that very moment, his wife Michelle and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, were at a Seder with a family friend in Chicago.
“As you can imagine, Barack Obama is a very studious, pretty intense guy, very focused,” Lesser said. “He asked questions about the traditions, how our families [celebrated], the meaning of each part of the text. He was very familiar with the story.”
The candidate put his own twist on a tradition. “After the meal, we raised our glasses and said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’” Lesser said. “We put our glasses down. He raised his glass and said, Next year in the White House.’ We all put our glasses up, clanked and cheered.”
Obama went on to win the Democratic nomination and the general election. The following spring, in 2009, he started a new White House tradition.
By this time, Lesser was working in the West Wing for senior advisor David Axelrod. “I would see the president every day,” Lesser said. One day, President Obama asked if they would have a Seder again. Lesser recalled the president’s words: “Last year, I said ‘Next year in the White House.’ Here we are in the White House. We’re going to do it.”
The result was “the first time in American history that a president celebrated a Seder in the White House,” Lesser said. First Lady Michelle Obama joined her husband, and First Daughters Malia and Sasha asked the Four Questions. The group numbered 20 to 25 people, including senior advisors Valerie Jarrett and Axelrod, and close friends of the Obamas from Chicago, Eric Whitaker and Susan Sher.
Each participant contributed a recipe for the White House chef to prepare, including a carrot soufflé from Lesser’s mother. The meal was served on the china set of Harry Truman, the first U.S. president to recognize the State of Israel. Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sent a Seder plate to First Lady Obama. The Jewish Museum of Prague donated a Kiddush cup.
At Whitaker’s suggestion, following the Haggadah reading, the guests read the Emancipation Proclamation “as a way to tie the stories,” Lesser said. This became an annual tradition too.
The First Family attended Seders during the eight-year Obama administration. One year, President Obama took an overnight flight from Afghanistan to arrive in time. “He made a very sincere personal commitment,” Lesser said.
There were changes amid continuity. Lesser brought his father as a guest in 2009, his mother in 2010, and then, in 2011, his fiancé, Alison Silber. They went as husband and wife in 2012, and in 2013 she was pregnant with their first child, who was a baby girl in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, Silber was pregnant with the couple’s second child. Meanwhile, Lesser attended in different capacities. He left the White House to attend Harvard Law School and then ran successfully for the State Senate in Massachusetts. He is running for a fourth term this year.
Lesser is not sure whether Obama continues to personally celebrate the Seder. Although the former president remains busy since leaving the White House, he and Lesser have seen each other recently in Washington and Boston. “He’s someone I have unique admiration for,” Lesser said.
That includes Obama’s role in creating a new Passover tradition. Lesser recalls his grandmother’s reaction when his aunt sent a photo of the first White House Seder.
“She put it best,” Lesser said. “She said, ‘Only in America could something like that happen.’”