Pete Souza / The White House

April 28, 2016

After Nine Years, Cornell Alumni to Lead Last White House Seder

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The exodus story describes the Jewish people traveling for 40 years in the desert. However, for three low-level staffers on the 2008 Obama campaign, the story of Passover reminds them of their own travels.

“[The campaign] was similar to how you’re watching it on TV now,” said Eric Lesser — a baggage-handler for the Obama campaign at the time. “It’s just a nonstop barrage of visits. You basically never go home. You’re going to city after city, state after state.”

When he and two other Jewish staffers on the campaign — Herbie Ziskend ’07 and Arun Chaudhary ’97 — realized that they would be in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the first night of Passover, they said they had to determine some way to observe the holiday.

“It was in the midst of the Pennsylvania primary, which was a very very long haul,” Lesser said. “I made an emergency phone call to my cousin, who at the time was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He ran into the Hillel at UPenn and snatched up all the emergency seder supplies that he could, which included the Maxwell House Haggadah, some matzoh and some Manischewitz wine.”

They said they found an empty, windowless room in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel in Harrisburg. For them, they were expecting an ad-hoc, casual seder. That changed when an unexpected guest walked through the door.

“Just as we were about to start, Obama popped his head in and said ‘Hey, is this where the seder is happening?’ and we all said ‘Yeah of course. Come sit down,’” Chaudhary said.

While Lesser remembers this seder as a highlight of the Pennsylvania primary, he said it was also one of the hardest parts of the campaign.

“There’s a moment in the haggadah where everybody [raises their glasses and] says next year in Jerusalem, and then we put our glasses down,” Lesser said. “Obama put his glass up and he said, ‘Next year in The White House.’ We all kind of looked at each other and we were like, ‘Yeah! Awesome. Next year in The White House.’”

Ziskend said they all remember the event as a moment of change.

“I had just graduated from Cornell a year earlier, Eric had just graduated from school less than a year earlier too,” Ziskend said. “We kind of suspected our lives were about to change in a big way.”

Chaudhary remembers that despite Obama’s presence, that first seder felt very egalitarian.

“Everyone brought something to it. If you didn’t know you asked. If you did know you would explain,” he said. “The only thing I would say that was radically unegalitarian was that we were all doing our best to keep our regular speaking voices, and then we have with us one of the greatest orators of this generation. So when he pretends to be pharaoh, it’s very very impressive.”

Ziskend recalls getting “peppered” with questions at the first seder in Harrisburg.

“Obama was a constitutional law professor and had been around students for many years,” he said. “For him to sit and grill us on the meaning of passover is totally natural to him.”

He recalls enlisting the help of his former professor — Ross Brann, near-eastern studies — to prepare for the next seder at The White House.

“[Brann] helped me prepare for 90 minutes on the phone for the meaning of passover, important stories to discuss, questions to ask,” Ziskend said. “It would have been much harder to prepare without Professor Brann.”

Brann said he recalls being delighted when he heard from Ziskend, and tells the story of their phone call every year on the holiday.

“One of the deep meanings of Passover and the seder for people of my generation and background is the ways in which they speak to issues of liberation and economic justice in our world,” Brann said. “From what I had read of the new President I was confident he would enjoy and appreciate Passover haggadot readings connecting the liberation of the Israelites to the present. I xeroxed, faxed, fedexed, whatever, a lot of material.”

Since then, it has become an annual event at The White House, with many ‘foibles’ along the way, according to Chaudhary.

“One year I went out to hide the afikomen for Malia and Sasha to go look for it, and I hid it and I came back, they went out to go find it, and they came back and said we can’t find it,” Ziskend said. “Then it hit me and I realized I completely forgot where I hid it. Luckily I quietly looked at a secret service agent who motioned to where it was.”

As they have the last seder at The White House Thursday, a week after the start of Passover, Ziskend said he will remember all the momentous occasions that have been the background to their seders.

“We were there when the economy was in the worst part of The Great Recession, we were there when health care reform was being debated and passed, as wars were being ended,” he said. “I think once you get past the secret service, the guards, the surroundings as you walk past the Blueroom, it is like a family having seder anywhere in America.”