Doug Emhoff, America’s Second Gentleman, will host a virtual seder tonight in a first for the White House, Jewish News has learnt.
The event, likely to be attended by community leaders and journalists, comes as the administration gears up to welcome members of vice-president Kamala Harris and president Joe Biden’s mishpacha to an in-person seder in Washington this weekend.
Biden has several Jewish grandchildren, and the second couple have two adult Jewish children.
Emhoff, a Californian lawyer and Harris’s husband, also this week warmed up for the first big Jewish festival in his new role by attending a virtual gathering on Sunday known as the Rainbow Seder, for members of the LGBTQ community.
Emhoff told attendees that Jewish history is “an entirely contemporary story about the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice in an all too often broken world. The seder is where I learned from an early age that Passover holds such power,” he added.
Matt Nosanchuk, a former Jewish liaison for Barack Obama, said that in his experience Emhoff was “interested in using the position he holds to lift up his Jewish American identity”.
While seder plans for the first Passover under Biden have not been made public yet, Nosanchuk said much could be taken from the president’s interest in Jewish ritual in years past. He recalled: “One year, the reception [for a Jewish event] fell during Sukkot, and I was alerted to the fact that none of the attendees that were observant would be able to eat unless there was a Sukkah.” And so Nosanchuk spoke to Biden, who was hosting the event at his home, and asked “can we build a Sukkah by the pool? And we did it!”
President Obama was the first US president to host an official seder at the White House.
In 2009 Obama hosed a private seder in the White House residence, marking the first time the Jewish rite had been honored by any president. The origin story of that first Passover dinner has an incredibly Jewish theme of its own. In 2008, when Obama was still just a presidential candidate, he was traveling with staffers on the campaign trail on a date that happened to fall on seder.
“It was a bunch of people who found themselves, for the first time in their lives, away from home on Passover,” said Jarrod Bernstein, Jewish liaison for Barack Obama and co-host of Jewish Insider’s limited Liability podcast. “They held an impromptu seder there in the hotel, with paper plates and whatever they could find, and Obama found out about it and joined them. At the end when they all said, ‘Next time in Jerusalem,’ Obama said, ‘No, next year in the White House!’”
Bernstein noted that each year at seder, a specialty Jewish chef would be brought in to assist the White House cooks in preparing a meal. He added that dishes like brisket, kugel and matzah ball soup were always on the menu, and attendees were often asked to contribute special family recipes to add to the meal. In fact, many guests contributed their own items of Judaica to the table, as the White House does not have its own issue of items like Kiddush cups or matzah plates to pull from. For his part, Bernstein remembers bringing his mother’s seder plate to the Obama Pesach table.
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