Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Three People Walk into an Office...
What do a Russian Jewish immigrant, a Jew by choice, and an American-born Jewish educator have in common? Sounds like a beginning of a joke, but it’s not. This cast of characters was engaged in a very serious and animated conversation in my office a few years ago. The discussion was about making Passover meaningful for us and for our children. This has stuck with me because of our vastly different experiences and connections to the Seder. In that group, as I tried to distill my experiences, I was moved by the immigrant’s story, and I was both touched and saddened by the Jew by choice’s experience.
The Passover Seder, like lighting Chanukah candles, is among the most widely practiced Jewish rituals among American Jews. Yet, for a growing number of Jews, it holds little meaning. The stories that made up the conversation in my office open a window into our diverse community. They should compel us to challenge our personal assumptions and to reach out to “the other” to both support them and to enrich our own experiences.
For me, the Seder is a model of differentiated education – different parts of the Seder are meant to teach to different levels of understanding using different modalities to teach. The latter can be seen in the symbols that represent and connect to the five senses. Differentiated instruction can be seen in the repetitious songs for children and more serious theological questions for adults. That’s my “educator” appreciation of the Seder.
For me, the very personal connection to Passover is about “remembering you were once a stranger”. One of the central commandments is “telling the story as if you yourself went out from Egypt.” All the symbols on the table are meant to evoke that feeling of leaving the familiar. I have lived away from my hometown and my close-knit family for most of my life. Having lived in a few different places means that I can feel a community’s values by how they have treated strangers – in this case, my immediate family and me. Perhaps because of this awareness, my children grew up knowing that our house was open at any time to “outsiders”. As adults, my children live this value as well. The Seder is a call to action for our family to find ways to address “the stranger”.
The immigrant who participated in the conversation in my office recounted that her family received their visas to leave Russia on the first day of Passover several decades ago. Therefore, Passover and its theme of freedom is a reality that she personally experienced. As a result, Passover is a centerpiece holiday in her home, and she is profoundly committed to helping her children and others understand the nuances of freedom. She wants everyone to understand that freedom comes with responsibility – the responsibility to care about others, to appreciate the riches that we enjoy in our society. One of this family’s traditions is to begin their Seder sitting on the floor to represent oppression. The shift to the dining room table represents freedom.
The third person in this conversation is a Jew by choice. She discussed how traumatic Passover was for her. As a convert, she always felt burdened by the amount of work Passover preparation entailed. Adding to her discomfort was the fact that her in-laws always wanted to conduct a traditional Seder – reading every passage with no discussion. It was an alienating and difficult experience for her. I have recently read several different blogs about Passover, and I find this story to be representative of many contemporary Jews.
Our conversation provided this Jew by choice the permission and tools to own her Seder and create one that worked for her and her family. They filled it with questions and let her young boys lead using their school’s model Seder template. Their Seder has assumed a meaningful place in her family’s practices.
Each year, our Passover Seder evolves depending upon the ages and stages of the participants. As last year, we will be celebrating with our children, grandchildren and extended family – sixty of us in a camp that we are renting for two days. Children under the age of five will be the majority of participants so we intend to create an experiential Seder complete with sippy cups for our wine. Once the children are asleep, the adults will continue to have long conversations about strangers and freedom. I suspect we will engage in conversations about our personal Egypts and hopes for liberation.
Whatever you do during Passover, I hope that you have the joy of connecting in some way to the grand themes of the holiday... strangers, freedom, redemption and questioning.
Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday),
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