Why was Thursday afternoon different from all other afternoons?
Unlike most days when Congress is a ghost town during recess, the smells of horseradish, Manischewitz and gefilte fish wafted through the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee room during a Passover Seder on the Hill.
Co-sponsored by the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association and Senate Chaplain Barry Black’s office, the event brought more than 60 staffers — old and young, Jew and gentile, alike — to share in the annual rituals that compose the seminal Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites flight from bondage in Egypt.
“L’Chaim [to life],” they cheered, as they downed the first glass of sweet red wine or grape juice, or, for some, soda. The ritual requires that participants drink at least four glasses over the course of the meal at different times during the service.
A spread of Israeli salad and other kosher-for-Passover foods awaited the group in the Russell Senate Office Building.
“This is fantastic,” said Rabbi David Rose, who co-officiated the service. “That there’s a Seder on Capitol Hill is an incredible comment about freedom in this country.”
Two rabbis, one Orthodox and one Conservative, took turns leading the group in traditional songs and prayers.
“You do the plagues,” Rose told his counterpart, Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, before they began.
“Yeah, the plagues, that’s a good one,” Hertzfeld responded, adding. “You do Dayenu” (the name of a traditional song).
“No, no. You do Dayenu,” Rose answered.
They made sure to explain the rituals for guests and less-observant Jews as they went along.
Parsley, for instance, is dipped in salt water and eaten to symbolize the tears shed by Jews while enslaved in Egypt, said Rose. And Jews wash their hands before eating, added Hertzfeld, to spiritually cleanse the body.
Lisa Schultz, director of communications for the Chaplain’s office, said the group had to get permission from the Senate Rules Committee to hold the event.
“We helped order the food and got special permission from the Senate restaurant [in the Dirksen Senate Office Building] to heat it up,” she said.
In fact, the restaurant took special care to heat the food in a kosher environment, she added, making sure it didn’t touch any other pans that have cooked non-kosher food, for instance.
Yuri Beckelman, president of the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association and a legislative aide to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), said it’s great for Jewish staffers to be able to gather and take part in the tradition, even if they can’t make it home to their families.
“There’s no way I can go home that often,” said the San Francisco native. “It’s just nice to have this put together for us.”
Michael Levin, communications director for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), said he invited several non-Jews, too, “to share the experience and some of our culture and tradition. That’s something that my family has often done with neighbors and friends.”
One of those non-Jews, Bertine Moenaff, who came from Holland to work as a legislative fellow in Weiner’s office, said she looked forward to learning about Jewish traditions.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’ve had lots of Jewish friends and colleagues but I’ve never been to a Seder.”
Black, a Seventh-day Adventist, participated as well.
“The African-American community was energized far more by the stories of the history of the Jewish people fleeing the bondage in Egypt than they were by the sermon on the mount,” said Black, who is African-American. “If you listen to the spirituals, you will see the liberation themes that we will be reflecting on in the Seder.”
Of course, no gathering of staffers would be complete without a few political references.
When Hertzfeld mentioned he would hide the afikoman (a piece of matzo which is broken and hidden for a child to find as a game), one staffer yelled, “Are you hiding it in [Sen.] John McCain’s [R-Ariz.] office over there?”
And when asked if there are any topical themes in the Haggadah, the Passover prayer book, such as a prayer for health care for all Americans, Beckelman said with a smile, “It was put together by a [Sen. Jim] DeMint [R-S.C.] staffer, so I doubt that.”