HARRISBURG — The freshly painted state dining room in the governor’s mansion was full of lively conversation and political discussion, plenty of wine (four cups, Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan continuously reminded everyone) and a crisp breeze, which blew in from the door left open for Elijah.
For the second year in a row, Gov. Tom Wolf and first lady Frances Wolf celebrated Passover in the Governor’s Residence. There were 16 guests, some of them local citizens and some of them state officials. Attending dignitaries included Tony Lepore, chief of staff to the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus; Carrie Lepore, deputy secretary for tourism at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development; Robin Wiessmann, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Banking; and Pennsylvania Physician General Rachel Levine.
The Wolfs said that, to the best of their knowledge, last year was the first time a Passover seder was held at the Governor’s Residence, which was built in 1968.
This year’s seder was held April 4, in advance of Pesach, so that those who celebrate the holiday could join their own families for seders as well.
Astrachan, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in York, also led last year’s seder. This year he brought some of his own family traditions to the Governor’s Residence — including his parents, Rabbi George and Rita Astrachan, who made the freshest, tangiest horseradish, a cherished dish of the evening.
Astrachan’s wife, Shelley, embellished the table with small toys — plastic frogs, tiny sunglasses and a collapsible cow puppet, representing a few of the 10 plagues — just as she’s done for years at the Astrachan family Passover seder.
The seder followed a similar structure as last year’s, and Frances Wolf said they plan on making it an annual event.
“Pennsylvania is composed of all traditions, all cultures, people with backgrounds from all over the world,” she said, “and we have a moral obligation to reflect that embrace in this space. It is called the people’s home, the citizen’s home of Pennsylvania, and we need to show that it belongs to everyone.”
She added that they’ve held celebrations in the mansion for Eid and Diwali, so Passover was an obvious choice.
“I don’t want this to be an unusual thing that happens,” she said. “It’s time we start embracing all of Pennsylvania.”
“I am deeply committed to the foundation of Pennsylvania, which is that we are a diverse commonwealth that welcomes and celebrates our religious diversity,” said Gov. Wolf. “We’re celebrating Passover, and this is part of paying respect to the diversity and our traditions.”
Last year’s seder was not the first for the Wolfs.
Frances Wolf’s sister converted to Judaism, so she’s celebrated Shabbat with her and attended her two nieces’ b’not mitzvah, which she said gave her a strong sense of community.
“When our youngest niece had a bat mitzvah,” she recalled, “in [her parents’] talk to the congregation they said to their daughter, ‘You’re not alone. You have 2,000 years of history at your back. You will be safe in this world.’ I started crying.
“The sense of community, the sense of common values, of the strength of those values — it’s extraordinary.”
Frances Wolf said Astrachan explains the meanings behind the seder well, emphasizing that it is OK to ask questions. She said he also helps those new to hosting seders avoid any faux pas or mishaps.
“I have blown the candles out [at my sister’s house on Shabbat],” she admitted with a laugh. “I learned.”
As wine glasses were ritually filled with Manischewitz throughout the reading of the Haggadah, Frances Wolf joked that the sweet wine was tasting better and better as the night went on.
And for the second consecutive year, as Astrachan pointed out after the meal, the governor failed to keep his eye on the afikomen (which this reporter later discovered taped underneath the table in front of her).
Frances Wolf said she enjoys seders because of their joyful and fun embrace of community.
“Years ago, we were at a Passover dinner with friends at their relative’s home,” she recalled.
It was “a hoot,” she said — Gov. Wolf cringed at the memory — because children and dogs were running around the Boston home throughout the seder.
“And there was a cat in a drawer that I had to open to get napkins,” she laughed.
“The craziest part was leaving when the son was dressed in a Superman outfit chasing the dog around [upstairs],” the governor remembered. “All you could see were the shades and shadows of the dog and kid running by.”
(No cats were found in the Governor’s Residence.)
Each family has its own traditions, which Frances Wolf said she enjoyed learning about. “As someone who doesn’t celebrate Passover, it was interesting just to hear the differences.”
She also said that the recent wave of anti-Semitic events across the country made this year’s seder at the Governor’s Residence especially vital.
“It makes it more important, but we did this last year, too,” Gov. Wolf noted. “This is something that is not just once and done. We’re doing it because this is who we are as Pennsylvanians.”
“It would be nice to get to the point that this is not a big deal,” Frances Wolf added. “We just want to keep it going.”
Rachel Kurland writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.