top of page

Why Obama celebrated Passover at the White House

The Passover Seder was an annual private dinner held at the White House during Barack Obama's presidency to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. Obama invited his family, staff, friends and their families to this since 2009.

How does an African-American Christian come to celebrate a Jewish festival?

The Jews were slaves in Egypt (Genesis 2):

"Then they appointed rulers over them [the people of the Israelites] to put them under pressure through hard labour. They had to build the cities of Pitom and Rameses for Pharaoh as storehouses [...]

The Egyptians cracked down on the Israelites and made them slaves. They made life difficult for them by hard work with mud and bricks and by all kinds of work in the fields. Thus the Israelites were forced into hard slave labour [...]

On this day [on the occasion of the Feast of Passover] tell your son: This is for what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt [...]

For with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt [into freedom]. Keep this statute, year after year, at the appointed time!"(Einheitsübersetzung)

The Haggadah tells the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It is at the same time the instruction for the course of action for the Seder evening. Seder is the Hebrew word for "order", which is used as a short name for the Seder evening. The illustrations in the Haggadah often refer to contemporary events. For example, the illustration from the Barcelona Haggadah (14th century) shows Jews toiling as construction workers under Muslim supervision.

Finally, God leads the Jews to freedom. This is the central idea of the Passover festival: to remember the liberation from slavery. That is why Jews celebrated and continue to celebrate Passover under all circumstances: whether in the Middle Ages, when Jews were often persecuted, or during the Nazi era, when their lives were at risk in concentration camps.

The memories of the liberation of Jews and the slavery (and discrimination that continues to this day) of blacks formed and continues to form the bridge between Jews and the American civil rights movement. In his famous speech at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King declared:

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders can sit together at the table of brotherhood... I have a dream today!"

Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4 April 1968. He had reportedly been studying the Passover story the night before. In 1969, on the first anniversary of King's death, 800 people gathered in the basement of Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, D.C. There, Jews and Christians, rabbis and clergy, blacks and whites held a freedom seder.

Barack Obama emphasised the universal significance of Passover in his speech to students in Jerusalem in March 2013. He also justified in that speech why he brought the Passover celebration to the White House:

"It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become. But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering, but also all of its salvation.

It’s a part of the three great religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - that trace their origins to Abraham, and see Jerusalem as sacred. And it’s a story that’s inspired communities across the globe, including me and my fellow Americans."

(Full speech online here)

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page