Sharing the Seder at Emunah
The Passover seder is the most celebrated Jewish ritual among American Jews. More than lighting Hanukkah candles or fasting on Yom Kippur, participating in some kind of seder stands alone.
The seder has numerous qualities that distinguish it from other Jewish practices: its compelling narrative (The Exodus itself! One of the greatest stories ever told!), its combination of food and ritual, its songs, its drama and reenactment, its intellectual focus, and its emphasis on asking questions. Most importantly, the seder has flexibility. Perhaps this is what has made it one of the most enduring observances throughout the ages.
Each generation of Jews has embellished the original command with which we are presented in the Torah: “v’higadeta l’vinkha—you shall tell this story to your children”—with new ideas and approaches that range from engaging the children with the search for the afikomen to the frivolous: gently beating each other with scallions during the recitation of Dayeinu in the Sephardic rite. There is, of course, the intensity of considering what it must have felt like to have finally experienced freedom after enduring generations of harsh slavery, which propels us to consider how we can make the world freer and more equitable today.
Over the years, families have shared with me their own traditions, special foods, and unique practices that they have created for the seder. Anything from plays and skits with elaborate costumes, to throwing cotton balls to represent the hail of the plagues, to writing their own creative verses set to modern pop songs. There is almost no limit to the innovations one can include to embellish the seder. All this has led us to retain a core of traditional text and practice while leaving great room for new traditions to take hold. This is a recipe for great success, which I only hope we can emulate in other holidays and with other rituals.
A couple of years ago, I was able to organize a family reunion for Pesah. at Camp Ramah Darom with my parents, my family, and my sister and her family. Located two and a half hours northeast of Atlanta in the Georgian mountains, Camp Ramah Darom is an idyllic setting for a Jewish summer camp. Since the buildings and facilities are quite a bit nicer and newer than other Ramah camps, its nickname is “Spa Ramah.” I was most excited to be able to enjoy these beautiful facilities and to take a year off from the joys and challenges of cooking for Pesah. and hosting meals. Ramah Darom hires professional chefs from New York to cater the most exquisite meals throughout each day of Pesah.
In order to make this experience slightly more affordable for our families, I offered to teach some classes. And while the camp took me up on this offer, they wanted the most help with something folks were less eager to lead: their communal seder. Apparently, their communal seder had not always gone as well as they had hoped.
Since Sharon and I had been hosting seders at our own home for many in our Emunah community—including new members, those studying for conversion to Judaism, as well as other families and individuals who do not have family in the area to share the holiday with, we felt like we had a pretty good model.
I was able to adapt this for a group of about 160 people. From the youngest children to grandparents, everyone was engaged in this group experience that also left time for families, couples, and individuals to have their own conversations at each table. To my great delight, I was able to provide a compelling package where people of different backgrounds could all find elements with which they could connect. We also had a great deal of fun! So much so, that Ramah invited me to come back and lead their communal seder the next year. I told them that while I appreciated the offer, I was needed at home.
Born out of this experience and based on conversations over the past few months, I am very excited to announce that this year Temple Emunah will be hosting our own communal seder. Our goal will be to engage all ages and people from all different backgrounds in a joyful and interactive experience. It will be held on Saturday, March 31, 2018, the second night of Passover, beginning at 5 pm. We will begin in the late afternoon with activities and icebreakers, followed by a traditional seder that will include singing, dancing, and delicious food catered by Tova’s.
Since we hope that all ages will participate, younger children may choose to check out after dinner or dessert and those of us with a bit more stamina will be invited to stay through the conclusion at 10 pm. I thank the Bess Ezekiel Memorial Fund for underwriting the seder so that the cost to participate is not too high. Funding is available if you need financial assistance to attend this program.
Feel free to sign up as an individual, couple, or family; if you would like to bring an extended group of family or friends to join you at your table, we will work hard to accommodate groups of all sizes. This seder will provide an opportunity to celebrate as a community and there will also be times for each table to share learning and conversation with each other. Beyond the many benefits of being able to celebrate the seder together in community, there is the added benefit of not having to cook or clean!
As the seder concludes, we sing: “L’shanah haBa’ah Birushalayim—Next year in Jerusalem.” Right now we can exuberantly exclaim, “This year at Emunah!”
Rabbi David Lerner