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Obama celebrates fifth annual Passover seder dinner

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members and civilians in the East Room at the White House on March 25, 2013. Later in the evening, Mr. Obama celebrated his fifth annual Passover seder dinner in the White House. Mr. Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to observe the Jewish holiday.

Mary F. Calvert/Reuters

Before sitting down to host his fifth annual Passover seder at the White House Monday, President Barack Obama emphasized the commonality between African-Americans and Jews and stressed the obligations of deliverance and freedom.

"Passover is a celebration of the freedom our ancestors dreamed of, fought for and ultimately won," he said. "But even as we give thanks, we are called to look to the future. We are reminded that responsibility does not end when we reach the Promised Land, it only begins."

Mr. Obama is the first U.S. president to observe the Jewish holiday in the White House, hosting the dinner with family and White House staff. Spokesman Josh Earnest said that this year's celebration will include a seder plate given as a gift to first lady Michelle Obama by Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the Israeli prime minister.

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"The seder itself is something any Jewish family would easily recognize," said Eric Lesser, who organized the original Obama-era seder while serving as the campaign's luggage co-ordinator.

The tradition began in 2008, when three young staffers held the ritual meal in the basement of a Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pa. Mr. Lesser's cousin grabbed the Passover staples from the University of Pennsylvania Hillel group, a grab bag that included matzoh, a couple of bottles of Manischewitz wine and Maxwell House Haggadahs, the iconic prayer books published by the coffee company.

While on the primary campaign trail, then-senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama hinted that he might drop in, and in the end, made good on his promise, appearing with friends Valerie Jarrett, now a senior adviser to the White House, and Eric Whitaker.

There are anomalies at the Obama-led Seder. There is the annual reading of the Emancipation Proclamation right before prophet Elijah joins the table, and the President himself imitates the Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews at the risk of divine wrath.

Typically attended by family and friends, the ritual dinner gives thanks to God for the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and commemorates the arrival of Jews to the Promised Land.

"When you work in politics, the people you work with are your family," said Arun Chaudhary, one of the campaign aides who began the now annual tradition.

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