A White House Passover

The White House held a Passover seder Thursday night. For the first time, an American president attended the Jewish celebration.

Hana Levi Julian, | updated: 11:56

Traditional Passover plate
Traditional Passover plate
Israel News Photo: (illustrative)

U.S. President Barack Obama invited friends and staff members to a Seder at the White House on Thursday night to mark the second night of the Passover holiday in what is believed to be a "first" for the executive mansion. President Jimmy Carter attended a Seder in 1979 at the Washington home of adviser Stuart Eizenstat.

The Jewish service at the table was led by Eric Lesser, a campaign aide. First Lady Michelle Obama and the couple's two daughters also attended the special meal, believed by aides to be the first attended by a president.

Earlier in the day, Obama signed a letter that wished Jewish Americans "a peaceful and relaxing holiday" and noted that the story of the Jews' Passover flight from Egypt was "among the most powerful stories of suffering and redemption in human history."

Obama added, "As part of a larger global community, we all must work to ensure that our brothers and sisters of every race, religious culture and nationallity are free from bondage and repression, and are able to live in peace." He ended the letter with the Hebrew holiday greeting, chag sameach ("happy holiday" - ed.).

The Seder, which included the reading of the traditional religious text, the Haggadah, also featured the regular seder plate, with its roasted egg, matzah, bitter herbs and greens.

It is not the first time that this First Family has attended a Seder, and many of this year's guests were at the table last year in the Sheraton hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a Seder during the campaign. Taking a page from the Haggadah's closing wish of "Next year in Jerusalem," Obama and others had jokingly added, "Next year in the White House," according to an official.

However, the administration's two top observant Jewish aides said they would not be able to be there: White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel did not come to dinner, and senior adviser David Axelrod planned to be with his own family in Chicago.

Kudos From the Jewish Sector
National Jewish Democratic Council deputy executive president Alexis C. Rice praised Obama lavishly in response to the news he would hold a Seder, saying it proved "Obama is a true friend of the Jewish community."

William Daroff, head of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities organization, said the move "speaks to the inclusiveness of today's America and of President Obama. This night is indeed different from all other nights."

Various media also viewed the celebration as a sign that the new president would invest much in a close relationship with his Jewish supporters.

The week-long Passover holiday began Wednesday at sundown.