Why Obama, a Christian, hosts a Passover seder each year at White House

Monday's Passover seder at the White House will be the fifth Obama has hosted. No, he's not Jewish, but he recently elaborated on why the story of the Exodus speaks to a universal 'yearning' – and to him personally.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama pauses during his speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday. The president’s speech last week in Israel revealed that his daughters are a key reason he holds Monday's Passover seder at the White House.
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For the fifth time since he moved into the White House, President Obama will host a Passover seder Monday evening, a ritual that is celebrated by Jewish families throughout the world and that the president, a Protestant Christian, says speaks personally to him.   

The gathering of about 20 people in the elegant family dining room on the first floor of the White House is expected to include first lady Michelle Obama as well as presidential daughters Malia and Sasha.   

Mr. Obama is believed to be the first president to host seder dinners at the White House. America has not had a Jewish president.

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During his speech to an audience of young people at the Jerusalem International Convention Center last Thursday, the president spoke at length about what the celebration of the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt means to him. “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,” Obama said. “It’s a story that’s inspired communities across the globe, including me and my fellow Americans."

The president told his audience of young Israelis that the Passover story has a special resonance to him, as an African-American whose early years were not rooted in any one place. “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,” he said. “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."

The seder tradition began in 2008 when candidate Obama unexpectedly joined a seder arranged by three young Jewish aides in the basement of a Sheraton hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., during some of the darkest days of his campaign. The organizers included Eric Lesser, who worked on trip logistics; campaign videographer Arun Chaudhary; and Herbie Ziskend, who did campaign advance work. All have since left the Obama team but are expected to attend Monday night’s dinner.

After the pledge that ends the traditional seder, “next year in Jerusalem,” candidate Obama raised his glass and declared, “Next year in the White House,”recounts the Jewish Daily Forward. At the time, he was still engaged in a ferocious primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Those who have attended the White House seders say they blend traditional and new aspects. On an untraditional note, the event includes the reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. More traditionally, Malia and Sasha in the past have taken on the traditional duties of Jewish children, asking four questions about the evening’s purpose and searching for a piece of matzoh that has been hidden at the White House.

The president’s speech last week in Israel revealed that his daughters are a key reason he holds the seders at the White House. “I did so 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," he said. 

Like the Obamas and their daughters, not all attendees at the seder will be Jewish. For example, Jen Psaki’s first seder was the dinner in Harrisburg while she was serving as the Obama campaign’s traveling press secretary. She has since been pictured at White House seders. Ms. Psaki, now the State Department spokesman, learned the Exodus story at Catholic school.

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