Category: Media

A Passover tradition for the White House: Campaign aide turned Mass. lawmaker helped inspire Obama’s Seders

By Joshua Miller

The Boston Globe

April 02, 2015

SPRINGFIELD — The story of how state Senator Eric Lesser will celebrate Passover in the White House with President Obama Friday begins where few grand tales do: in a dim basement room of a Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pa.

During the Pennsylvania primary, one of the toughest patches of the 2008 presidential contest, Lesser and other Obama campaign aides organized an impromptu Passover Seder there and were joined by a surprise guest. In the years since, the President, who is Christian, has not only brought the yearly ceremony to the White House, but makes a point of participating and including Lesser and other members of the original crew.

So Lesser, after doing the mundane work of a backbench legislator this week — huddling with staff about the closure of a small bridge, talking with a constituent about arts programs, fielding budget queries — will head to Washington and is set to break bread, matzo, with the commander-in-chief in another chapter of an unlikely story.

For Lesser, 30, the annual Seder serves as a marker of his life’s rapid progression from young campaign aide to Massachusetts’ youngest state senator, now married, with a daughter.

At the 2009 Seder, the first one in the White House, he was single and brought his father to the dinner. At the time, he was working as the special assistant for David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser and strategist.

In 2011, Lesser was working for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and brought Alison Silber, his then-fiancee. She was his guest again in 2012, months after they were married, and when he was a first-year Harvard Law School student.

And in 2014, amid Lesser’s state Senate campaign, the Longmeadow couple brought along their young daughter, Rose.

After the president, first lady, and about 20 guests worked their way through a Haggadah, the Passover service text, some of the dinner discussion turned to a certain Springfield-area election.

“At one point, the president started asking him about how the campaign was going,” said Newton native Herbie Ziskend, one of the young coorganizers of the original Seder and an attendee every year since.

“It felt a little bit like getting pee-wee football coaching from Tom Brady,” Lesser said in Springfield this week. “But he is a former state senator himself. He is familiar with how a state senate campaign operates.”

Lesser said Obama told him to knock on every door and talk to as many people as he could one-on-one. (Lesser ended up winning the open seat in a district that includes some of Springfield and Chicopee and seven nearby towns.)

The elegant presidential surroundings are a far cry from the group’s original Seder in 2008.

That year, in the midst of the tough Democratic primary campaign in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t practical for Lesser, Ziskend, and Arun Chaudhary, another Jewish staff member, to get home for the holiday, which commemorates the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt. So they threw together a Seder — with some emergency supplies, including matzo and kosher wine, procured by Lesser’s cousin in Philadelphia — and held it in the basement of a Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pa., in what Ziskend called “a little dark, not-that-nice room.”

It was originally going be just the three of them and a few other staff members. But then-US Senator Obama and others ended up joining.

The 2008 Seder ended, as many traditional Seders do, with the attendees raising their glasses and saying, in unison, “Next year in Jerusalem!” And then Obama added, “Next year in the White House.”

And so it was that the custom begun in Pennsylvania continued at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It has evolved a bit. In 2011, for instance, the attendees began reading the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the Seder, in a nod to the universal message of a holiday that celebrates freedom from bondage.

On Friday, coorganizers Lesser (2008 Seder: luggage wrangler; now: state senator), Ziskend (2008: advance man; now: a director at an investment firm) and Chaudhary (2008: Obama’s videographer; now: a creative director at political communications firm) are set to return to the White House.

Beforehand, the three, who all worked in the administration during Obama’s first term, will huddle to practice helping to lead the evening’s activities.

“Eric leads us in the songs,” Chaudhary explained. “He and I do a lot of the explaining and traffic management, and Herbie does the holding up of stuff, like on the Seder plate.”

White House chefs do the cooking, including using some family recipes from participants. Last year’s menu included Passover foods such as gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, and kugel.

The Seder tradition is anchored in the retelling of the Exodus story. And for Lesser, retelling his own Passover story — how he came to celebrate with the president himself — has become something of a touchstone.

Earlier this week, Lesser regaled sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Heritage Academy, a Jewish community day school in Longmeadow, with his real-life tale of being part of history in 2008.


State Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, thanked students at Heritage Academy in Longmeadow for giving him a Seder plate on Tuesday.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

He told them about campaign staff members, Jewish and not, making their way into the basement room. Just as they were about to start the service, they heard a familiar voice from the hallway.

“He popped his head in and said, ‘Hey, is this where the Seder is happening?’ And it was Barack Obama,” Lesser recalled.

Lesser, who is still a Harvard Law School student, explained how the tradition has continued and, in 2009, they “celebrated the first Seder in the White House in American history.”

He also chronicled that time the Seder was delayed when a participant had trouble getting a container of macaroons past the Secret Service. And talked about Malia and Sasha Obama usually finding the afikomen, a hidden piece of matzo that is a part of the Passover service.

The middle-schoolers were enthralled, peppered him with questions, and then presented him with a note and a decorated Seder plate to bring to the First Family.

He assured them he would deliver the items on Friday when he shows up at the White House, where the event is expected to be essentially the same.

But for one notable change.

“For an apolitical event,” Chaudhary said, “it’s ironic but very cool to have two elected officials there now.”

By which he meant: the leader of the free world and state Senator Eric Lesser.

Plan to expand high-speed rail from Springfield to Boston, and beyond

WWLP 22 News

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – A decade from now, you might be able to get from Springfield, to Boston and to Canada through high-speed rail service. That was one of the subjects discussed during a meeting Tuesday morning in Springfield, promoting the benefits of rail service to western Massachusetts.

Sen. Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow) sponsored a bill in January that would look at the feasibility of a high-speed rail line running between Springfield and Boston. Lesser, along with members of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission went over potential costs and benefits of the project Tuesday.

If Lesser’s bill is approved by the Legislature, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would submit a report outlining the rail line’s potential impacts by August. The line itself already exists, and is known as the “Inland Route.”

“We need a better east-west real connection, so there’s a very massive study underway. We would not just look at connecting Springfield to Boston, but actually Boston to Montreal,” Tim Brennan of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission said.

A study on the rail service is expected to be finished by the end of the calendar year.

Sen. Eric Lesser tours, touts benefits of Sisters of Providence Opioid Treatment Program


HOLYOKE — Following his appointment this week to a regional committee focused on health-related challenges in the Northeast United States, state Sen. Eric Lesser spent time Wednesday learning more about one of the Pioneer Valley’s busiest substance abuse treatment programs.

The Opioid Treatment Program run by the Sisters of Providence Health System staff in Holyoke provides medication-assisted treatment for opiate addiction for people suffering from addiction in all four counties west of Worcester. And as heroin and opiate addiction has seen a drastic uptick in recent years, the demand for the program’s services has increased significantly, according to Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer of addiction services for the Sisters of Providence Health System under Mercy Medical Center.

Roose, who was recently appointed to an opioid crisis task force by Gov. Charlie Baker, said that he helps run a 30-patient acute treatment unit for inpatient addiction services which admits around 200 new people each month.

He also oversees two outpatient opioid-treatment programs which serve a total of around 1,000 patients each day with one of the three FDA-approved drugs for treating opioid addiction.

As Lesser is now representing Massachusetts to the Council of State Governments Eastern Region Committee on Health, he said the program’s successes should be replicated to help everyone who is looking to break an addiction.

“We have a very serious epidemic on our hands. The opioid crisis has touched everyone, from all walks of life,” Lesser said. “There are treatment options available but we need to make sure the most people possible have access to those services. The other side is looking for legislative ways to prevent future epidemics.”

The heroin epidemic’s resurgence in the past few years has led to a public health crisis throughout much of the Northeast United States, including Massachusetts. While the Bay State had 363 opioid-related deaths in the year 2000, by 2011 that number had grown to 642 by 2011. That figure was more than 860 in 2013, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

In 2013, President Barack Obama’s administration renewed the nation’s drug policy, transforming it to address the drug problem and addiction as public health issues. Treating substance abuse primarily as a criminal justice issue dates back to the declaration of the “war on drugs” in the early 1970s by President Richard Nixon and based on data collected over the course of nearly 40 years proved unsuccessful.

But even as attitudes has shifted toward care over punishment, another hurdle has been providing enough treatment options to meet the need. In Massachusetts, established a 16-member task force to work to identify best practices, and opportunities to expand treatment. Roose is among the members.

Lesser said he plans to take what he learned from Roose in Holyoke, including the fact that there is typically a two- to three-week waiting list for addiction-treatment services, to Beacon Hill.

“This crisis won’t be solved from our courtrooms and jails,” Lesser said. “We need to expand our treatment options and get people the help they need when they need it.”


Sen. Eric Lesser discusses urban issues with Boston Mayor Martin Walsh at Boston City Hall

By Shira Schoenberg, The Republican

BOSTON – State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, met Tuesday with Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, in an attempt to build relationships across Massachusetts’ east-west divide.

“It’s important for us in Western Mass. to expand those types of links and build those types of relationships,” Lesser told The Republican/ “The default is for it to be all about Boston, so any opportunity we can get for leaders in the eastern part of state to hear what our concerns are is an opportunity we should jump on.”

Bonnie McGilpin, a spokeswoman for Walsh, said, “The Mayor enjoyed meeting with Senator Lesser today and looks forward to collaborating with him on a number of valuable priorities for the future of Massachusetts.”

Western Massachusetts residents and politicians often complain that state resources are directed primarily toward the eastern part of the state. The issue has boiled up again recently with debate over whether, if Boston wins a bid for the 2024 Olympics, the games should be concentrated in Boston or should be spread statewide. This could affect, for example, which transportation projects are prioritized in the coming years.

Lesser said the topic of the Olympics only came up generally, in the context of ensuring that all parts of the state are treated fairly.

Lesser said he talked to Walsh about urban issues such as homelessness and economic development, and how lessons learned in Boston can be applied to Springfield, Chicopee and other cities in Western Massachusetts. They talked about Walsh’s experience growing the technology sector in Boston and how to incorporate the technology industry into a city’s economy. Lesser said Walsh was eager to learn more about communities in Western Massachusetts.

“He was very enthusiastic about wanting to continue a dialogue,” Lesser said.

Walsh also offered Lesser advice from his time in the state Legislature – for example, about how to stay in touch with constituents. Walsh was a state representative from 1997 to 2014, when he left the House to become the mayor of Boston.

Lesser, a former White House aide under President Barack Obama, won a seat in the state Senate in 2014 in his first bid for elected office.

Lesser said his first conversation with Walsh came when Walsh, a Democrat, called Lesser to congratulate him on election night. Tuesday’s meeting at Boston City Hall was set up by Walsh chief of staff Daniel Koh, who went to college with Lesser.