How NFTY Helped Me Bring Passover to the White House

Photo of Eric Lesser-NFTYBy Eric Lesser

In 2008, I found myself as a young aide on Barack Obama’s first Presidential campaign. At that time, my job was considerably low on the organizational ladder; I was in charge of keeping track of the luggage for the campaign’s traveling staff. The job took me to 47 states and six countries in less than a year.

The travel schedule meant I would be away from home during Passover, but luckily, I learned from NFTY, you can build a Jewish community wherever you go. Working with a few other Jewish campaign staffers, I organized an impromptu Seder at the end of a whistle-stop tour in Harrisburg, PA, and the then-Senator Obama decided to join us. At the end of the Seder, we raised our glasses to pronounce “Next Year in Jerusalem!” Senator Obama added, “Next Year in the White House!” It led to the first White House Seder in American history, and a new annual tradition for the President.

Each year, when we gather around the White House Seder table, the President asks us how we celebrate Passover with our own families. He asks about the meaning of each tradition, and the lessons we take away from story of Exodus. We also take time to acknowledge the universality of the Passover story by reciting passages from the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite the Presidential setting, it’s a feeling and a conversation I’m very comfortable having – because of the way NFTY helped shape my community identity so many years ago.

NFTY was a place to both grow and develop as a leader, and to have a good time in the process. Memories of conclavettes (weekend long events), Institutes at Camp Eisner, movie nights at Sinai Temple in Springfield, Mass., and trips to temple youth groups across New England are among my fondest memories from high school. NFTY taught me that it was possible to have fun, spend time with friends, and do mitzvot at the same time.

I was in high school during a particularly critical time for Israel and the Jewish community. The Second Intifada erupted my junior year, confronting Israel with a barrage of suicide bombers and violence on a mass scale. American Jews were eager to get involved. My generation was looking to do its part, but was unsure of the best way to be helpful.

NFTY gave me that community, and a way to help. I took one of my first trips to Washington D.C. with NFTY, to visit the Religious Action Center, where I participated in a solidarity march for Israel on the National Mall. I met hundreds of other passionate young Jews from across the country with a similar commitment to peace and protecting Israel’s right to exist.

NFTY also presented opportunities for me to make a difference closer to home. For several years, I participated in an interfaith dialogue between Sinai Temple and Springfield’s Alden Baptist Church. Those sessions reinforced a fundamental perspective of Reform Judaism: Jewish values of tikkun olam and social justice are universal values, shared by people of all faiths. We worked with other religious groups on a variety of community service projects, including partnering with a local church operating a food bank and soup kitchen.

Of course, a great deal of meaningful learning also came from informal settings. Some of my fondest memories are of late night banter around the campfire at Eisner, where the conversation would shift from the latest Green Day song, to the importance of doing mitzvot. Additionally, being in charge of finding housing for 100 teenagers visiting for a weekend conclavette can teach a 15-year-old a lot about leadership and organization.

With each year, and each experience, I grew more confident in my Jewish faith, and more assured of my ability to follow the Jewish example of tikkun olam. Thanks to NFTY, I was able to hone in on the power of working as a community, so when it came time to discuss those themes at the White House Seder table, I was prepared.

Eric Lesser is a candidate for State Senate in the Massachusetts First Hampden & Hampshire District. In high school, he was the President of the Springfield Federation of Temple Youth, based at Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA. He worked as the Special Assistant to White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod and later as the Director of Strategic Planning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He has a B.A. from Harvard College and is completing his law degree from Harvard Law School. Eric lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife, Alison, and his young daughter, Rose.