HARRISBURG — A scent that calls up memories of Passovers past — mostly that sharp smell of horseradish — wafted through the dining room of the Governor’s Residence on March 26.
The entryway buzzed with the sounds of old friends schmoozing, and the table was set with such customary Passover items as bowls of charoset and salt water, and, of course, the seder plate.
For the third year in a row, Gov. Tom Wolf and First Lady Frances Wolf held a mock seder preceding Passover in what has become a new tradition. Like in past years, Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan of Temple Beth Israel in York led the seder. The guests were generally the Wolfs’ friends from York and Harrisburg.
For the Wolfs, celebrating Passover is a part of embracing the multitude of cultures throughout the state.
“Our metaphoric arms are open to everyone,” Frances Wolf said. “This place is a public building, and it should celebrate all traditions. It’s one of the reasons we were dedicated to having a seder here.”
In that same spirit, the governor pointed out, they will host an upcoming Easter egg hunt, and they also host celebrations of other religions’ holidays, like Eid and Diwali. Frances Wolf encourages staff members from the governor’s office to bring in the first photo of the first generation of their family in the United States to decorate a wall.
“This is what makes this country,” Wolf said. “It’s not just one tradition, one group. It’s all of us. We all, working together, make such a very rich country.”
Frances Wolf has Jewish family, so these seders aren’t her first forays into Jewish observances and holidays. She recalled how, at her first Shabbat, she blew out the candles. Her sister told her she wasn’t supposed to do that.
And when it came to the Passover seders with her Jewish family, “they were a hoot,” Frances Wolf said, with small children running around.
“Most of them were just really nice times for family and friends,” Tom Wolf said. “I guess you could say it’s really about family, but for us, it’s about friends.”
Considering her family connection to Judaism and the other holidays that historically have been celebrated at the Governor’s Residence, the first lady said hosting a seder was a natural fit.
“Spring is coming, and you see the traditions or the events that have taken place traditionally here, and the seder wasn’t one of them,” she said. “It just seemed like something we had always been a part of. It was important to have it here as well.”
The first seder they hosted was quite proper, she said, especially when compared with the one last year, when Shelley Astrachan, the rabbi’s wife, decorated the table with toys to represent the 10 plagues.
This year, those toys were absent from the Passover table.
Rabbi Astrachan emphasized that, as it wasn’t actually Passover yet, this was just a model seder, a symbolic example of what a seder might look like in a family’s home or in the Jewish community.
He said he enjoys being able to bring the symbolism of the Passover tradition to the the Wolfs and their guests.
“Being invited here, as I have for the third year here, by Gov. Wolf and the first lady is really not just a privilege to be able to be the facilitator of this model seder, but it’s wonderful outreach on the part of the first family,” Astrachan said.
Frances Wolf said Astrachan does a good job explaining the different parts of the seder, especially considering her and the governor’s lack of knowledge about Passover.
“It’s really a wonderful honor to be invited here and see [the governor’s] true joy, and the first lady’s true joy, in celebrating the diversity of cultures,” Astrachan said.
Astrachan brought copies of his own haggadah to the seder, one that, he pointed out, had both his own name as well as the governor’s name on it, a fact that made his mother quite proud.
Throughout the seder, Astrachan spoke about the importance of asking and answering questions and the importance of children’s roles in the seder.
“Our chief responsibility is to make sure children are alert, awake and paying attention,” he said.
He also went through the different items on the table, providing explanations as to why they were there. Some items, he explained, have multiple meanings. Since some interpretations have been lost through history, if you know of a different explanation for something, you are also right because there is no way to prove you are wrong.
After the festive meal, the seder continued with a Jewish Exponent reporter opening the door for Elijah and with the last two glasses of wine. Megan Healey, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women, found the afikomen.
“[This seder is] another example of how [the governor] reaches out to all corners of Pennsylvania to honor all of the different peoples that live within the commonwealth,” Astrachan said.
The seder concluded with the traditional call of “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Or, at least, next year at the Governor’s Residence, assuming Tom Wolf wins reelection later this year.
The Wolfs say they plan to continue these mock seders at the historic building in the future, “as long as we are permitted to here,” Frances Wolf said.