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President Obama celebrates Passover with annual White House seder tradition

President Barack Obama, family and former 2008 campaign staffers celebrate the second night of Passover with a seder, in the White House Old Family Dining Room, April 15, 2014; this is Obama's 6th seder, a tradition that started in the 2008 campaign
President Barack Obama, family and former 2008 campaign staffers celebrate the second night of Passover with a seder, in the White House Old Family Dining Room, April 15, 2014; this is Obama's 6th seder, a tradition that started in the 2008 campaign
White House

President Barack Obama again took part in celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover or Pesach in Hebrew with his annual tradition of hosting a seder in the White House. This year President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the second seder of the holiday on Tuesday evening April 15, 2014 in the White House's Old Family Dining Room. President Obama also issued a statement in honor of the holiday released on Monday, April, 14, and included Passover greetings in his holiday themed weekly address released on Saturday morning, April 17, 2014. But the holiday celebration this year was marred by an anti-Semitic act of violence that occurred on Sunday, April 13 in at Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas, where three people were killed by a white supremacist. The hate crime overshadowed President Obama's message joyful messages for the holiday with sadness.

The president first released his statement for Passover or the eve, erev of the holiday, and the night of the first seder on Monday morning, April 14, 2014. President Obama sent his wishes and also mentioned the seder he was going to host at the White House, writing; "Michelle and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Passover in the United States, in Israel, and around the world. On Tuesday, just as we have every year of my presidency, my family will join the millions taking part in the ancient tradition of the Seder. We will enjoy the company of friends and loved ones, retell a timeless story, and give thanks for the freedom we are so blessed to enjoy."

The rest of his message was overshadowed by the tragedy that occurred so close to the holiday. President Obama again condemned the anti-Semitism of the Overland, Kansas shooting, he issued a first brief statement condemning the violence shortly after the news broke on Sunday, April 13, 2014. In his Passover message Obama wrote that; "Yet even as we celebrate, our prayers will be with the people of Overland Park, Kansas and the family and friends of the three innocent people who were killed when a gunman, just one day before Passover, opened fire at a Jewish community center and retirement home on Sunday."

The president also condemned the violence and anti-Semitism at "White House Easter prayer breakfast" held on also on Monday, April 14, where Obama stated; "We're all children of God, we're all made his image, all worthy of his love and dignity, and we see what happens around the world when this kind of religious-based or -tinged violence can rear its ugly head. It's got no place in our society." Obama also expressed; "That this occurred now, as Jews were preparing to celebrate Passover, as Christians were observing Palm Sunday, makes this tragedy all the more painful."

President Obama made a point of again condemning the violence in his Passover statement and reminding all Americans that this anti-Semitism and racism should not be happening in the United States, stating; "As Americans, we will continue to stand united against this kind of terrible violence, which has no place in our society." Continuing Obama expressed that kind of virulent hate will be "combated" in the country; "We will continue to come together across faiths to combat the ignorance and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, that can lead to hatred and violence. And we will never lose faith that compassion and justice will ultimately triumph over hate and fear."

The president harkened back to the biblical Passover story from the book of Exodus, Shemot, recounting; "For that is one of the great lessons of the Exodus. The tale of the Hebrew slaves and their flight from Egypt carries the hope and promise that the Jewish people have held in their hearts for thousands of years, and it is has inspired countless generations in their own struggles for freedom around the globe."

President Obama linked the story the Jewish freedom from Egypt to the immigrant experience, the African-American experience and the American dream and promise of life, liberty and pursuit of freedom, American fundamental rights and freedom. Obama explained; "In America, the Passover story has always had special meaning. We come from different places and diverse backgrounds, but we are bound together by a journey from bondage to liberty enshrined in our founding documents and continued in each generation." The president acknowledged the problems and hatred that still is present even in America, and that the Jewish Passover story is model that American should look to; "As we were so painfully reminded on Sunday, our world is still in need of repair, but the story of the Exodus teaches us that with patience, determination, and abundant faith, a brighter future is possible." President Obama ended his message using the Hebrew holiday greeting; "Chag Sameach."

Tuesday evening, April 15 President Obama hosted his sixth Passover seder. The tradition, a new one for the White House was introduced during the 2008 presidential campaign at the time when President Obama going through the tough Pennsylvania Democratic primary campaign in a dead heat for the Democratic nomination against fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The first seder was held in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania hotel basement with then candidate and Senator Obama and his campaign staff. It was a low point in the campaign, Clinton won the Ohio primary and the Jeremiah Wright video both were coming between Obama and his dreams of the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Campaign and former White House videographer Arun Chaudhary said; "We were in the desert, so to speak." The first seder was conducted by Jewish campaign staffer Eric Lesser. Lesser went on to served as an assistant to "White House senior adviser David Axelrod," and is now running for the Massachusetts State Senate.

The New York Times in an article published in 2010 entitled "Next Year in the White House: A Seder Tradition" told the story of how Obama happened on the seder; "One evening in April 2008, three low-level staff members from the Obama presidential campaign - a baggage handler, a videographer and an advance man - gathered in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania hotel for an improvised Passover Seder." The three junior staffers were "Eric Lesser, Herbie Ziskend, and Arun Chaudhary." The New York Times account continued; "Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. "Hey, is this the Seder?" Barack Obama asked, entering the room," that was how a new presidential tradition was born.

At the end of the first impromptu seder that went through the whole Haggadah the conclusion blessing was altered by Obama from "next year in Jerusalem" to "next year at the White House." Lesser recounted to the Huffington Post in an interview; "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." The tradition continued in the White House in 2009, President Obama's first year in office with the president following through on his promise. Lesser recounted "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."

Each year the seder includes the same former campaign staffers that were with Obama for that first campaign seder, however, once at the White House Obama added his family and some friends and the significant others of the staffers. The Washington Post reported the guest list for this year's seder consisted of "White House senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett; Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago Director David Axelrod; former White House staffer Eric Lesser and Alison Silber; former Obama personal aide Reginald L. Love; former White House staffer Lisa Kohnke; State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki; former White House videographer Arun Chaudhary and Laura Moser; Obama friends Cookie Offerman and Kelly Schaefer; senior adviser to the first lady Melissa Winter; chief of staff of the Huffington Post Herbie Ziskend; former first lady chief of staff Susan Sher and Judge Neil Cohen; deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes and Ann Norris; Obama friend Eric Whitaker and Joan Maas; and Matt Nosanchuk."

The White House wanted to mix up this year's menu and include not only traditional Passover favorites, but also more interesting variations. Vered Guttman who catered this year's seder recounted in her article "When I cooked the seder for the Obamas" in Israeli paper Haaertz what it was like to prepare the seder at the White House for the first family. The White House hired Guttman, and Susan Barocas, the "former director of the Jewish Food Experience" to cater the event, creating the menu. Guttman recounted it was First Lady Michelle that wanted to include "more healthy and fresh" dishes to the menu, to fit more the message of her Let's Move! initiative. All the dishes were prepared in the White House Kitchen by the "White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford" and "Pastry chef Bill Yosses."

According the Chicago Sun-Times this year's menu consisted of an entrée that included; "Gefilte Fish, Haroset, Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls," and a specialty "Salad of quinoa cooked in coconut milk with Tuscan kale and roasted yams." There were side dishes of "Wilted Spinach, Carrot Soufflé, Passover Noodle Kugel, Roasted potatoes with garlic and onion, and Roasted sweet potatoes." The main course included; "Seared Salmon with Roasted Artichokes, Chicken with preserved lemons and green olives," and perennial Passover favorite of "Braised Beef Brisket." Three deserts were made; "Raspberry Ganache Marjolaine, Passover Brownies, Passover Mandel Bread."

The table set-up in the Old Family Dining Room was just as inviting as the menu; Guttman described the table setting with the Clinton China, spring flowers, and a main seder plate, last year Sara Netanyahu's seder plate that was a gift to the Obamas, during his March 2013 trip to Israel. While each guest was given their own personal seder plate, and a copy of the Maxwell House Haggadah, the choice of haggadah for the traditional American seder. Apparently according to the Washington Post, the seder itself was "abbreviated." Guttman recounted what the White House Seder sounded like behind the scenes in her Haaretz article; "It was nice to listen to the guests reading the blessings together, singing Dayenu and the Eliyahu Hanavi. But the most touching moment for me was to hear them all recite 'In every generation it is one's duty to regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt.' And the tale of the exudes was told even in the White House on Tuesday night."

The White House seder is different than most seders as Ziskend told the Huffington Post, because the exodus story is the not the only one retold, but the first campaign seder; "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." Continuing Ziskend explains; Obama "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." President Obama explained during his trip to Israel in March 2013 that he holds the seder at the White House each year "because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful."

Another story of freedom is also included at the White House seder, the emancipation of the American slaves. Ziskend revealed to the Huffington Post that 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." Ziskend explained the reason why the story of the emancipation of African-American slaves is recounted at the White House seder, that the "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."

President Obama recounted that same story about the connection in history between African-Americans and Jews and the Exodus story during his March 2013 trip to Israel, where he told a group Israeli youth in a major address, why he has a personal affinity for Passover; "It's a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It's a story about finding freedom in your own land. It's a story that's inspired communities across the globe, including me and my fellow Americans." Continuing Obama expressed; "To African Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity - a tale that was carried from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement into today. For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home."

President Obama concluded his Passover celebrating and wishes with his weekly address released Saturday morning, April 19 entitled "President Obama Offers Easter and Passover Greetings." The president sent wishes to both religions celebrating holidays over the weekend. Obama talked about personally celebrating Passover at the White House seeder; "Earlier this week, we hosted a Passover Seder at the White House, and joined Jewish families around the world in their retellings of the story of the Exodus and the victory of faith over oppression."

To conclude President Obama harkened back to his Passover message earlier in the week remembering the anti-Semitic tragedy in Overland Park, Kansas with common message of peace and cooperation between all religions. Obama hopefully expressed that; "The common thread of humanity that connects us all - not just Christians and Jews, but Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs - is our shared commitment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. To remember, I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper. Whatever your faith, believer or nonbeliever, there's no better time to rededicate ourselves to that universal mission."

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.