President Barack Obama marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover on Monday, in a small and intimate gathering that took place a few days after returning from his highly anticipated and politicized visit to Israel.
The White House ceremony reportedly “follows tradition” except for a few additions, such as a reading of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation that freed America's slaves, officials said, according to the AFP news agency.
"This is something that the president started doing with members of his staff and some friends during the campaign in 2008," White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
"It was an opportunity for him to spend some time with staff on the campaign, with friends, and it was a very meaningful moment on the campaign for him," he said.
That first Passover Seder for Obama was held in Pennsylvania, where he faced a strong challenge from his then rival Hillary Clinton, during their hard-fought battle for the Democratic party's presidential nomination.
Three young Jewish aides for the then-senator organized an improvised dinner in a hotel basement, and Obama reportedly asked if he could join.
"And as president, this is a tradition that he's continued here in the White House, where many of the staff members who participated in that dinner in 2008 have been invited back to participate in the dinner in subsequent years," Earnest said, according to AFP.
At the 2008 Passover Seder, his aides concluded the ceremony with the traditional prayer, "Next year in Jerusalem," while Obama reportedly added: "Next year in the White House."
During the president's trip to Israel last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's wife, Sara, gave the Obamas a silver Passover Seder plate that officials said would be used at the ceremony.
In a speech in Jerusalem, Obama said that Passover not only tells the story of Jewish redemption, but also conveys a universal message that resonates with Americans, particularly African-Americans.
Obama said he brought the Passover celebration to the White House 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."
"In the United States -- a nation made up of people who crossed oceans to start anew -- we're naturally drawn to the idea of finding freedom in our land."
While Obama finally decided to visit the Jewish state—something he managed to omit during his first term-- he declined to speak at the Israeli Knesset, as is customary of the American president, and instead addressed a crowd at the Binyanei Hauma convention center in Jerusalem.
The president also decided to exclude students from Ariel University, located in Shomron, from the list of invitees to the presidential speech, even as all of Israel's other universities were included.
The acts-- along with the president pressuring Israel to apologize to Turkey over the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident-- were seen by many as a blatant affront to the Jewish state.