Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser

In 2004, the Democratic National Convention was held in Boston. That year, a newly elected Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, gave an electrifying speech and captured the attention of a young CNN intern named Eric Lesser. Just a few years later, Lesser found himself working for David Axelrod, among the closest advisors to President Obama, seated just outside the Oval Office.

Long before Eric Lesser worked at the White House, though, he credits the RAC as an important influence. As a high school student, he was interested in public affairs, but “I didn’t know how to act on it.” But in 2002, Eric attended L’Taken and, in the same weekend, also attended a rally in support of Israel. He identifies these two events as instances that “let me know that there are a lot of other people all over the country who not only agree with me, but are passionate about trying to make a difference.” That feeling, realizing the “power of a group of people” in making the world a better place, was something “you don’t always get in high school.” It was this kind of grassroots, organic power that also led Eric into politics.

While an undergraduate, Lesser served as president of the Harvard Democrats. In that role, he helped manage on-campus activism for a number of Democratic candidates in the 2006 elections: Deval Patrick, running for Governor of Massachusetts; Sheldon Whitehouse, running for a Senate seat in Rhode Island; and Paul Hodes, who was running for a seat in the House of Representatives in New Hampshire. On the eve of that election, a rally was held for Deval Patrick, with Senator Obama as the guest speaker. Lesser sent out an email promoting the rally, with a link to the Senator’s 2004 speech. Usually, such emails would net 15, maybe 20 people in attendance – but on this night, over 90 came out. At that moment “I realized at that moment there was something special about him.”

Lesser went on to work for Senator Obama on his presidential campaign. In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, Lesser was asked to take over management of the campaign’s luggage accompanying the campaign’s airplane, and “make sure nothing got lost”; a job he compares to having worked as the “equipment manager for a sports team.” He attended almost every single campaign event, creating close relationships with the President and his advisors, and seeing the whole country.

Although working on a campaign is exhausting and all-consuming, Lesser made sure that elements of his Jewish tradition remained with him. In April of 2008 during the Pennsylvania primary, “I realized there was no way I was going to get home for Passover.” Lesser noticed that this concern was a theme for many young Jewish campaign workers at the time and so he organized a “makeshift” seder, held in the basement of a hotel in Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania. While passing through Philadelphia, he met up with a cousin who was a student at University of Pennsylvania, who had arranged for the university’s Hillel to provide haggadas, seder plates, and kippot. Shortly after they finished setting up, then-Senator Obama surprised the campaign staff by stopping in and asking: “Is this where the seder is happening? Can I join you guys?” As the seder came to a close, and all participants said “Next year in Jerusalem!” Obama followed with, “Next year, in the White House!” The next spring, President Obama came by Lesser’s desk one day, and asked, “Hey, are we going to do the seder again?” And so began the White House’s Passover tradition.

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