In an email to The Washington Post on Monday morning, White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom described the Seder as “an opportunity for observant WH staff that can’t be with their families to celebrate the holiday among friends. We’ll also be opening it up for interested WH staff (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) to take part in a Seder on campus.”
After the Seder, a White House official who asked not to be identified to discuss a matter involving staff said that guests included Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Jeremy Katz, deputy director of the National Economic Council.
Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America, and while American presidents have held Hanukkah parties in the White House for decades, none of them had attended a Seder there until Obama took office in 2009. Obama, who celebrated it during the 2008 campaign with three young staffers in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., held it in the residence’s Old Family Dining Room during his time in office.
Obama insisted that his two daughters attend early on so that they would be exposed to the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, and read the Emancipation Proclamation at one point during the roughly two-hour meal. The girls ran through the residence searching for the afikomen, the hidden piece of matzah that must be located before the ceremony ends, and one of their cousins attended one year.
Several prominent Jewish leaders tried to offer gifts that could be incorporated into the White House Passover observance: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara gave the Obamas a silver Seder plate in 2013, and the late Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tried to get them to read from the text he had written for the ceremony, known as the haggadah.
But the Obamas stuck to the pattern they establish on the campaign trail, reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah that has been used in American Jewish homes since the 1930s, and eating foods based on the family recipes of their staff. The White House kitchen was not rabbinically supervised during the meal’s preparation, meaning it was not fully kosher, but the food was kosher-style.
Monday night’s staff observance was catered by a kosher-for-Passover catering company, the White House official said. It took place in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, not in the White House residence itself — the same room where staffers in then-president Bill Clinton’s administration held a Seder in 1993.
The three Obama campaign staffers who initiated the tradition — Arun Chaudhary, Eric Lesser and Herbie Ziskend — all celebrated separately this year, and without the Obamas.
“Hopefully President Trump is able to attend a White House Seder at some point because I think retelling the ancient story of liberation from persecution is an important exercise for the leader of the free world. Especially this one,” Ziskend said in an email. “Maybe he will do so next year…in Jerusalem!”
This post has been updated. Jenna Johnson contributed reporting.