On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pesach: The BT Family Seder

Over the past generation or so unaffiliated Jews have moved more and more away from Jewish customs and traditions.  A generation or two ago, the most secular Jews still went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, didn’t eat pork and shellfish and intermarriage was almost non existent. 

A lot has changed in our generation.  Now, unaffiliated Jews do very little in terms of Jewish holidays and laws, but virtually everyone still observes the mitzvah of circumcision and attends at least one of the Passover Seders.  There’s something about the Seder that keeps us connected.  Maybe it’s the unique food or that on some level we still identify with leaving slavery. 

Whatever the reason is, since non religious Jews still want to go to a Pesach Seder, Passover becomes the most difficult holiday for Ba’al Teshuvas.  The issues that come up are numerous and cross some very difficult waters.

Unlike Shavuot and Sukkas, which most secular Jews don’t care so much about, most families want/insist to get together for a Seder.  My goal is to always find the balance between maintaining my commitment to Torah values and having a healthy relationship with my non-religious family.  This isn’t such an easy balance.  For fans of the TV show Seinfeld, you may remember an episode where George Costanza’s fiancée, Susan, started spending time with George’s friends Elaine and Jerry.  Since George saw himself as having two sides, “Relationship George” and “Independent George”, he had a very hard time holding things together when is fiancé and friends where all together.

This isn’t so different then a BT managing his commitment to the Seder without causing a family feud.

Here are the top 4 issues that most of us face…

  1. Where’s it going to be – In many families, there’s a tradition of having a Seder at a certain family member’s home.  There are two major problems that come up… Kosher food and traveling.  When I first became religious, my Seder host agreed to get me kosher food for the Seder.  This was a big help, but I recognize that not everyone’s family is so open and giving.  Travel was more of an issue.  My first Passover after I became religious, I asked to sleep over for two nights at my brothers house so I could be with the family for a Seder.  The problem was that my family only had one Seder.  For the second night, my brother’s family drove to his in laws.  I ended up walking 6 miles to a Rabbis house to have the second Seder.
Solution: If possible, offer to have the Seders at your house.  This will solve both the problem of kosher food and travel for you.

  1. Sleepover party? – Having the Seder at your home solves the travel problem for you, but doesn’t help solve the travel problem for your guests.  Most secular Jews aren’t going to be so keen on your insistence on a 48 hour sleepover party.
Solution: I’ve heard different opinions on this matter, but the one that I go by is that one can invite guests for Shabbas or Yuntuf as long as the host is prepared for the guests to sleep over as opposed to driving home.  You should consult your local orthodox Rabbi to see what’s right for you. 

  1. Can we eat yet? – The Seders can be very long and some of your guests can grow hungry and impatient along the way.
Solution: Serve some food before the Seder.  This should be done before sunset.  This way you’ll be able to hold your guests attention for longer.  For the kids, have snacks to give out during the Seder.

  1. Boring – For you the Seder may be very interesting, but we need to keep our guests in mind.  If we don’t keep it interesting, we’re going to lose them.  Also, some of the text is more relatable then others.
    1. Solution: My wife and I came up with a system where, during certain less inspiring paragraphs, I will read them silently to myself while she leads everyone in a game.  The paragraphs I usually read silently are 1. It happened that Rabbi Eliezer… until the 4 sons.  2. One might think that the obligation to discuss the Exodus commences… through Blessed is He Who keeps his pledge.  3. Rabbi Yose the Galiliean said… until Dayenu.  For the games, we’ve done Passover-Jeopardy, Name that song, Passover-Who wants to be a millionaire?, etc.  We’ll prepare a variety of questions in different decrees of difficulty and ask them according to our guests.  You might ask someone without a strong Jewish education to name Moses’s sister.  You may ask someone with a stronger Jewish education to name Aaron’s two brothers in law that we know of.  (Feel free to post the answer to question 2.)  My wife does a great job on this and it keeps it interesting for all.  I usually try to prepare some other commentary as we go along that I feel is particularly interesting. 

Good luck and keep in mind that one of the most important things we can do at the Seder is to educate and inspire our guests.  If we work hard to do both then it will truly be a Shana Habah B’Yerushalayim… Next year in Jerusalem!

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