The White House didn’t always celebrate Passover — here’s how the tradition began

Summary List PlacementApril 1993: President Bill Clinton's staffers held the first-ever White House Passover Seder in the Indian Treaty Room, though the president himself didn't attend. The Indian Treaty Room is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, not the White House residence itself, but it marked the first time that White...

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April 1993: President Bill Clinton’s staffers held the first-ever White House Passover Seder in the Indian Treaty Room, though the president himself didn’t attend.

The Indian Treaty Room is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, not the White House residence itself, but it marked the first time that White House staffers observed the holiday at the seat of the government.

Clinton press aide Steve Rabinowitz led the Seder, which included a catered kosher dinner, according to the Jerusalem Post. It wasn’t an official White House event, but the New York Times reported that staffers hoped the president would attend (he didn’t make it).

April 2008: As a candidate, President Barack Obama attended an impromptu Seder held by three staffers during his first campaign.

The three staffers — Eric Lesser, Herbie Ziskend, and Arun Chaudhary — threw together a Seder in the basement of a hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when they realized they weren’t going to make it home for Passover. 

They had planned to make it a quick, low-key event after a tiring day. Then Obama popped his head in and asked, “Hey, is this the Seder?”

“The funny thing is that Arun and Herbie and I were planning a pretty casual Seder and the President, well, then he was a Senator, can be a pretty intense guy,” Lesser told The Huffington Post in 2014. “So when we sat down he was very fluent in the story, he knows the story of Exodus of course, and we actually went through the entire Haggadah.”

At the end of the Seder, when participants traditionally say “Next year in Jerusalem,” Obama quipped, “Next year in the White House.”

April 2009: Obama became the first sitting president to attend and host a Seder at the White House.

The following year, Obama wanted to continue the Passover Seder tradition that began on the campaign.

“The president just poked his head in one day and said ‘Hey, Lesser, we’re doing the Seder again right? I promised ‘next year in the White House’ and here we are!'” Lesser told the Huffington Post.

The Seder was held in the Old Family Dining Room. First lady Michelle Obama attended the event along with Sasha and Malia, who asked the Four Questions as is tradition for the youngest Seder attendees.

The New York Times reported that one of the guests brought macaroons that had not been cleared by the Secret Service and wasn’t allowed on the White House grounds until Obama himself got involved.

March 2010: Obama hosted another Seder the following year, and he continued to do so every year of his presidency.

Seated next to Obama on the right is Jen Psaki, the current White House press secretary for the Biden administration. She was also present at the first impromptu Seder in Pennsylvania during the 2008 campaign.

April 2016: Obama held his last White House Passover Seder.

Over the years, Obama’s White House Seder developed its own memorable traditions, including a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and a speech from Chaudhary about the Hillel Sandwich made with matzo and bitter herbs.

“You know, the President makes fun of me because I every year make the speech about Hillel Sandwich … And I remember one year we were running behind, and so I said, ‘I don’t want to make this speech,’ and the President was like, ‘You gotta make the speech! That’s what you do every year — it’s your thing,'” Chaudhary told the Huffington Post. “And it feels very much like a family, very much like tradition, and that’s why I think it’s so important to everyone to go.”

April 2017: President Donald Trump did not continue Obama’s Passover Seder tradition, though some aides hosted their own celebration.

Some speculated that because Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are Jewish (Ivanka converted to Judaism before marrying Kushner in 2009) that the White House Seder tradition would continue. But like Clinton staffers did in 1993, Trump aides held a Seder in the Indian Treaty Room without the president.

March 2021: Second gentleman Doug Emhoff hosted the first-ever virtual White House Seder.

Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse in a presidential administration, and the celebration was the first White House Passover Seder to be open to the public.

Emhoff spoke about celebrating Passover as a child, which he said often involved attending Seder at his grandmother’s home in Brooklyn.

“Now, of course, it’s exactly what you’re picturing. That apartment. The plastic covering on the sofa. The smell of brisket wafting in from the kitchen,” Emhoff said. “And me, sitting there at the table, patiently waiting, just waiting, to dig into that delightfully gelatinous gefilte fish, which inexplicably I still love today.”

Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden also shared Passover messages at the event.

“As Jewish families across the country and around the world mark this important tradition, we know you’re all setting the Seder table with heavy hearts, but also with hope for the year ahead,” the president said.

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