Clinton's Jewish staffers at Seder: Next year in the White House

Though trailing Obama in delegates, Clinton still held her edge going into Tuesday's contest.

white house 88 (photo credit: )
white house 88
(photo credit: )
Recruiting out-of-state volunteers for the Clinton campaign going into Tuesday's primary was a tall task for Heather Capell. Again and again she heard, "I can't come. It's Passover." So Capell came up with a special pitch: "Make your exodus to Pennsylvania, so we can celebrate Passover next year in the White House!" When people complained that it was terrible timing, she said it was actually the perfect time. "Even when it seems inconvenient or hard, you keep on going," she told them. "That's the message of Passover. You keep going to get to the other side." Enough people responded to her appeals that the campaign gathered more than 40 staff and volunteers, many adorned with Hebrew "Hillary" pins, to celebrate the second night of the holiday on Sunday. Taking a break from knocking on doors, the Clinton boosters sat together at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, feasting on gefilte fish, singing "Had Gadya" and drawing parallels between the historic ritual and their own present endeavor. "I thought of it as the classic Jewish experience," Ann Lewis, a former White House communications director and senior campaign adviser, said following Sunday's Seder. "Whatever you've been doing, and wherever you've been doing it, you get together and tell the story, and you are on the one hand telling the history, and on the other, expressing your wishes l'shana haba'a [for next year]." That history had particular resonance for the many Jews like Lewis who are toiling away on the campaign trail, she added. "We take our citizenship seriously, and maybe one reason is because we tell the Passover story each year," she said. "We were slaves, so therefore we cherish freedom; we don't take freedom for granted." It wasn't just the presence of top advisers and dedicated volunteers at the table that made it clear it was a Clinton event; it was also what was on the table itself: The Seder plates all had oranges on them. Capell thought including the citrus fruit was important, since the group was supporting a female candidate for president, and some Jews have defiantly included the orange based on an apocryphal story in which a man was said to have told leading Jewish feminist Susannah Heschel that a woman "belonged on the bima [the pulpit from which the Torah is read] like an orange belonged on a Seder plate." "A woman should be in the White House as much as an orange should be on the Seder plate," explained Capell, a 37-year-old lawyer who took a leave from her firm to volunteer for the campaign. Hillel Director Jeremy Brochin, who isn't affiliated with the campaign but who led the Seder for the Clinton group as well as others, also alluded to the political atmosphere. Returning to the dining room after opening the door to let in the prophet Elijah, he joked, "It was just some campaign worker knocking on the door." The Clinton staff even came up with their own version of the Four Questions, in which a child traditionally asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Capell asked, "Why is this candidate different from all other candidates?" And volunteers Jeff Munjak and Naomi Cooper of California, who decided to travel cross-country to volunteer for the campaign, offered another adaptation. "We started thinking about what would make this primary different from all the other primaries," said Munjak, a 36-year-old financial planner. The answer: "This is the one we're coming to." They had watched Clinton fight for her political life by winning the primaries in Ohio and Texas, after losing 11 straight to her rival, Barack Obama, and they saw Pennsylvania as a key battleground for Clinton. Though Clinton trails Obama in delegates to the national nominating convention and has seen her lead in Keystone state polls cut from double digits down to a six-point spread, she has held her edge going into Tuesday's contest. Should she lose, it would be difficult for Clinton to continue, but a win would give her ammunition in her charge that she is better positioned to win the general election in November. Even though Obama has won more states and brought out thousands of new and independent voters, Clinton has done best in the largest states and among the crucial white, working-class constituency. She is favored to win here Tuesday, but the margin of her victory could be the most important factor in shaping the future of the race. When Cooper told her mother about her plans, she found herself facing an obstacle as great as any voter committed to a rival candidate: maternal guilt. But though Cooper's mother wanted her daughter at home for Passover, she was told, "The decade of guilt you'll give me won't compare to decades of guilt I'll feel if I don't go out and help Hillary." Cooper and her sister usually lead the Seder, so she noted that "my mom was particularly bummed out that she'd have to do it herself. But I think she's proud that I'm doing something like this."