HARRISBURG — The table in the ornate dining room of the Governor’s Mansion was decorated with all the usual trappings of Passover on April 20: a fully stocked Seder plate, bowls of sweet charoset, plates stacked high with matzah, haggadahs and plenty of wine.
The only noticeable absence was the abundance of relatives asking about whether or not you have a boyfriend yet.
The Seder was a special one, however, because it was hosted by Gov. Tom Wolf and First Lady Frances Wolf for 15 of their friends from York, where they had lived, along with a few friends and colleagues from Harrisburg, such as David Barasch and Sen. Rob Teplitz.
It was the first time a Seder has been hosted in the Governor’s Mansion, which was why Mrs. Wolf was excited by the idea.
“This house belongs to everyone in the state,” she said. “So what goes on here should really reflect the full range of celebrations of people in the state, so that’s why we’re starting with the Seder.”
There have been Easter egg hunts held on the premises, and the building is decorated around Christmastime. While they do put up a menorah during Hanukkah, not many other Jewish celebrations take place there, she said.
“We thought, ‘How do we honor and celebrate Jewish traditions in this house?’ And Passover was the obvious next step,” she said.
As her sister has converted to Judaism, this isn’t Mrs. Wolf’s first Seder — though it was her first time hosting, so she laughed that she kept calling her sister to make sure she had the steps right.
The staff were equally keen to make sure they got the details right, so much so that they were wondering how much salt was needed to put in the water that would later be used only for parsley dipping.
For her, the time was right to host a Seder in the building, and she said they “absolutely” want to make it an annual celebration — at least while they’re there.
“I think part of it is, part of my family is Jewish, we have very close friends who are Jewish. It seemed part of the fabric of how we share time with family and friends, so it seemed important,” Wolf said. “It seemed the thing to do.”
She was looking forward to learning more about the traditions and customs of the Seder. While she knew some of the roles of the items on the table, such as dipping the parsley in salt water, she was interested in learning more about why.
This was a way for them to honor a different tradition and learn more together. As Pennsylvania is composed of “a full range of communities and traditions,” she said she and her husband wanted to explore a tradition they weren’t totally familiar with.
“It would be easy if I went with what I knew, but I think we need to stretch ourselves to be inclusive and honor other traditions and communities that might not have been honored in the past — I don’t know that — but for us, this is a first time,” she said. “We need to have these markers that Pennsylvania is composed of a really large, diverse notion of community and tonight we honor one part of it.”
She was looking forward to being together and breaking bread together — or, she added with a laugh, “breaking matzah.”
The Seder was led by Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan from Temple Beth Israel in York.
Astrachan first met Gov. Wolf while the governor was spearheading a campaign for the expansion of the Jewish Community Center in York about two years ago.
“I received a call from the governor about a month ago asking if I would be interested in coming up to the governor’s residence to conduct a Passover Seder, so here I am,” he laughed.
In his preparations — which differed a bit from the ones he is making for his congregation’s Seder, where there will be 152 people — Astrachan created a unique haggadah for the evening that was a modified version of one he and a member of his congregation created last year.
“Other than that, it was a lot of fun to think about all of the rituals I would need to bring up to the governor’s residence knowing that I would be working with folks who don’t really have any experience putting together a Seder,” he said. “It’s looking for what kind of explanations will I need to include, what kind of explanations will I need to give, how do I make this feel modern and relevant.”
Astrachan led the attendees through the story of Passover, from slavery and oppression in Egypt to discussing the symbolism of the Seder.
But for him, it was also important to note that while the Jews are no longer slaves in Egypt, there is still slavery today.
“In addition, being here in the governor’s residence having such wonderful hosts,” he said, “some of the interpretations I’m going to use tonight will also be specific to the idea that we are living in an age where we need to be ever-conscious of the fact that there are still too many people who aren’t free — not in literal slavery but in, perhaps, figurative slavery — through hunger, homelessness, facing their own oppression, when really all people aren’t treated equally or fairly so we’ll be talking about some of that tonight.
“Because even though we’ve made great strides as a human race, there’s still so much more that we need to do to bring about a true springtime and a true freedom for all people everywhere.”
He was looking forward to showing the governor “that a Passover Seder can be fun,” he laughed.
Gov. Wolf opened the evening by welcoming everyone and sharing that he was happy to be able to host a Seder for the first time in the building.
“Frances and I were talking, and I guess there’s a tradition that’s been around here for an Easter egg hunt,” he said. “And it could lead one to say, ‘Aren’t there any other traditions that we ought to pay tribute to?’ and Frances and I thought there are, and we thought we ought to start a tradition here.”
He emphasized that they did not want to host the Seder on the first night of Passover because they did not want to take away time spent with families, but still wanted to be able to do it in a way to show the “respect and recognition it deserves.”
“This is a first — as far as a person who’s been working here back since before Ed Rendell was governor — and I think this is the first Seder ever celebrated in the Governor’s Mansion. This building was built in 1968, so we’re really proud to welcome you,” he said.
The conversation at the table was lively — particularly once the favorite words of the Seder were reached: “The festive meal is now served.”
Talk about children and grandchildren filled the room. There was probably less talk of politics than your family’s Seder, which was remarkable seeing as it was hosted by the governor of Pennsylvania.
Everyone sang along to “Dayeinu” — including Gov. and First Lady Wolf, who did their best — and the four questions (which this reporter got out of soloing despite being the youngest at the table).
Guests enjoyed Passover staples from matzah ball soup, charoset that Rabbi Astrachan made which he introduced by warning that “it’s like a drug” because you’ll keep wanting more (he was right), salad, potatoes, halibut, brisket, asparagus and, of course, matzah.
Upon reaching the meal being served, Gov. Wolf was thoroughly enjoying the evening. While it was not the first Seder he has attended, it was the first one with that much instruction and discussion, which he was enjoying.
“And I know I’m going to enjoy this,” he said with a laugh, as the brisket was passed around to his plate.
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