White House draws on Ukraine, antisemitism fight for annual (virtual) seder

Online gathering features remarks from vice president’s Jewish spouse Emhoff, includes first public appearance by new antisemitism envoy Lipstadt

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden address the White House virtual seder on April 14, 2022. (Screen capture/YouTube)
US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden address the White House virtual seder on April 14, 2022. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The White House held its second virtual Passover seder on Thursday with senior administration officials using the opportunity to tie lessons from the holiday to the plight of the Ukrainian people fighting off the ongoing Russian invasion.

Passover is “a story that makes me think about people facing war and conflict in communities around the world, including the brave people of Ukraine,” said Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, the first-ever Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, in his opening remarks before introducing US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.

“During this holiday, our hearts are with the people of Ukraine and all the people fighting for freedom. May the spirit of Passover deliver us from oppression, carry us forward and give us strength,” said the president.

White House Jewish liaison Chanan Weissman emceed the online event, taking thousands of viewers through the various rituals of the seder. The program included speeches and performances from a Jewish chaplain and choir at West Point military academy, children from New York’s Shefa school for Jewish students with learning disabilities, culinary writer Michael Twitty, Jeopardy host Mayim Bialik, Broadway actor Jonah Platt and religious leaders from across various Jewish denominations.

The seder also featured the first public, albeit virtual, appearance of Deborah Lipstadt since she was confirmed by the Senate last month to become US special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism.

Speaking about the Yachatz section of the seder where participants break the middle piece of matzah at the table, Lipstadt said, “I think it tells us that the world is always in some form of balance or imbalance between wholeness and brokenness.”

Deborah Lipstadt, nominated to be special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, with the rank of ambassador, speaks during her Senate Foreign Relations nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“This past month, it has been terribly broken. All around us we see pain, suffering, killings, attacks on children and civilians,” she said in reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But the seder’s instruction of Jews to come together for the holiday allows us to remember that not everything is broken and that we have much to be thankful for, Lipstadt added.

Addressing her task ahead, the antisemitism envoy said she’s “keenly aware that it is an office that is made necessary by the brokenness of the world.”

“I know that I shall not erase that hatred or repair that brokenness, but deep inside me is the hope, the prayer, that next year when, with God’s help, we gather again, we will be able to say that because of the work I have been privileged to do, the world is a little bit less shattered, less broken,” Lipstadt said.

The White House seder tradition began as an internal event for Jewish staff — joined by the president — during the Barack Obama administration, but has since transformed into a public gathering, often used to connect the holiday’s many themes to current affairs.

Former president Donald Trump and his family declined to attend White House seders during his term, despite his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner both being observant Jews.

Vice President Kamala Harris noted that on Friday she and Emhoff would host a traditional seder at the Vice President’s Residence with some of their Jewish staff.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” she said, using the line recited by Jews at the end of the seder.

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