LONGMEADOW – “I never really left,” Eric Lesser said while sipping iced coffee and waving to familiar faces at the Starbucks in the Longmeadow shops.
Lesser, the graduate from Longmeadow High School who organized a citizen’s campaign in 2002 to save his teachers’ jobs, went on to help elect the first African-American Governor of Massachusetts, the first African-American president of the United States and serve as a White House aide during one of the most tumultuous economic times in the country’s history.
Despite his hand in historic events, Lesser, 29, describes his 2002 experience knocking on doors in Longmeadow to support the Proposition 2 1⁄2 override vote as his “defining experience in public service.”
He has now returned to Longmeadow and is again organizing volunteers to knock on doors in a bid for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District Senate seat.
“My background and my community are deeply intertwined with Judaism,” Lesser told the Jewish Ledger. His parents – Dr. Martin and Joan Lesser – met in New York City where they both struggled in Russian Jewish and Italian immigrant communities before moving to Longmeadow to raise their family.
Lesser and his two sisters attended Longmeadow Public Schools, went to Hebrew School at Sinai Temple and spent summers at the Jewish Community Center camp. Lesser emerged as a leader early on. He served as president of the Springfield Federation of Temple Youth and was active in Sinai Temple’s social action and community service programs.
His role in organizing the grassroots campaign that passed a Proposition 2 1⁄2 override and pulled back the already issued pink slips of school staff, however, propelled him into a career in politics.
“It was an early lesson for me that people who care about their community can work together to improve it,” Lesser said. “There’s so much cynicism about the political process but that experience was a real antidote for that. It showed me that the political process can be a source for positive change.”
After graduation, Lesser attended Harvard to study government. He was active with Harvard Hillel and served as president of the College Democrats. He also worked as a volunteer on Deval Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, which delivered a landslide victory. Two years later, with a Harvard degree in hand, Lesser showed up in New Hampshire, a political battleground, and offered to help the Obama campaign any way he could. Lesser’s work as a volunteer landed him a salaried position – he was given the impressive title of Ground Logistics Coordinator for the not so glamorous job of keeping track of luggage on the campaign trail.
When Obama was elected president, Lesser traveled with him to the White House and worked a few doors down from the Oval Office as a special assistant to David Axelrod.
Lesser’s journey to D.C. was guided by the values instilled in him from his upbringing.
“I’ve always felt that my role as a Jewish person in America was to work on Tzedakah [charity or justice] and Tikkun Olam [healing the world],” Lesser said. “The number one lesson I’ve taken away from my Judaism is that you leave the world better than what you inherited. You use the opportunity that you have to help others.”
Those same values influenced his decision to leave his prominent position in the Executive Branch, enroll in Harvard Law School and return to Longmeadow with his wife to raise their own family.
The celebration of the Passover Seder at the White House is the legacy Eric Lesser leaves in Washington. The impromptu Seder Lesser threw together with fellow staffers on the campaign trail became a tradition for Obama’s presidency. He is humble when speaking of his experience sharing the dinner that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people with the highest-ranking member of the Executive Branch.
“You forget that it’s happening in the White House,” Lesser said. “The first time we celebrated in the family dining room, I was a little stiff and nervous but once we opened the Haggadah all of that evaporated because it’s the Seder. It felt the same as my Seders in Longmeadow.”
Passover for the Lesser family is a boisterous affair filled with relatives, neighbors and friends. In 2008, Passover came during the Obama campaign’s whistle-stop tour of Pennsylvania – three events were held in three cities with more events scheduled for early the next day. Unable to return home, Lesser, Arun Chaudhary and Herbie Ziskend decided to celebrate at the hotel in Harrisburg where they were spending the night. Lesser, arriving first with the luggage, secured an emergency Seder package from a cousin at a nearby university, a room in the basement and a chicken bone from kitchen staff to complete the Seder plate.
Just as dinner was about to begin, Barack Obama appeared and the familiar event took on new significance. “We were planning just a brief casual affair because we were all exhausted,” Lesser said. “But Obama came in and sat down. We ended up doing the entire Maxwell House Haggadah.”
Lesser laughed when recalling Obama’s questions about the ritual and his family’s traditions.
“We got to a certain point in the Haggadah and I had to say ‘in all honesty we’ve never gotten this far so I have no idea what I’m reading right now.’”
The 2008 Passover Seder was a special event – amidst the constant bustle and pressure of the campaign, Lesser remembers it as one of the rare moments when it was quiet and he was able to relax. Despite receiving international attention, Passover Seders at the White House continue to be a private and casual affair. The Seder plate is no longer paper – it is silver and was a gift from Sarah Netanyahu. Dinner is served on Truman china because he was the first president to recognize Israel. The Emancipation Proclamation is now read before singing to Elijah to intertwine the Jewish and African American experience with slavery. However, those in attendance continue to be the original participants in Harrisburg.
Lesser returns to Washington every year for the Passover Seder – he brings a different member of his family, his mother’s carrot soufflé, and, at the personal request of Barack Obama, shmurah matzah from Longmeadow’s Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy. Lesser received a letter from a World War II veteran that had fought in North Africa after the first White House Seder. The letter described a Seder the man had organized in a foxhole with Nazis within hearing range. During the celebration someone said, “Maybe one of these days this will happen in the White House.”
What was once the wishful thought of an older generation is now a routine event.
In February, Lesser announced his intention to run for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District State Senate seat being vacated by Gale Candaras. He is again on the campaign trail, attending meetings and talking with constituents in a district that spans Springfield, Longmeadow, Belchertown, Ludlow and Granby. This time, however, the platform he is advancing is of his own design. “There is so much that’s good and right about this area,” Lesser said. “But we have a very serious problem of our young people leaving. People want to stay close to their families but there’s not enough opportunities for them. There aren’t enough good jobs.”
Lesser’s focus is on the economy and middle class job growth – a shared concern throughout 1st Hampden and Hampshire District’s diverse communities.
“The Jewish community’s interests are aligned with the broader community,” Lesser said. “Talent retention and keeping our young people here are a real challenge. The biggest umbrella reason for that is that our economy is not attractive enough.” To remedy this, Lesser has advanced proposals for public safety, infrastructure and education and is committed to ending what he calls “the era [on Beacon Hill] when Western Mass continuously gets left behind.”
He is building his campaign through community meetings, neighborhood canvasses, and personal conversations and has already amassed over 100 volunteers to support his efforts.
Still, opponent Tim Allen plans to object to Lesser’s candidacy, claiming Lesser’s time in D.C. violates the State Senate’s residency requirements. The Senate Ballot Law Commission will rule on the objection in June. But Lesser is undeterred. In a brief phone call to the Jewish Ledger made while traveling between meetings in Ludlow and Longmeadow, Lesser said the planned objection has not had an impact on his campaign.
The most important lesson that he brings to his campaign from his career in Washington, he says, is his commitment to local politics.
“My belief in change is that it happens from the grassroots up, not from the top down,” Lesser said. “I think ultimately what I learned in D.C. is that if you want to make things better that has to happen locally.”