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Todayâ€™s blog comes to us from our friend Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL. He has over 25 years of experience as a rabbi in the Chicago area, and has devoted himself to outreach and unity among the interfaith population in his community and beyond. We feel the thoughts he shared with his congregation in this sermon about Passover speak to a lot of the same themes we have brought up over the past couple of weeks regarding the inclusive message of the holiday. Enjoy.
In just a few days we will celebrate Passover. Many of us will bring to our Seders the memories of Passovers we celebrated as children with all the familiar food, Jewish relatives seated around the table, and personal family traditions. But for many of our Seder guests, they are somewhat newer entrants into the Jewish family and people. Many have arrived at these ceremonies as adults without all the same memories as their spouses and families for whom this is part of their history. How do manage to make all feel at home at this most important holiday in the Jewish calendar?
The family therapist and author, Esther Perel, has used the metaphor of the immigration experience to better help us understand the cultural dynamic of marrying someone of a different faith. Imagine that instead of marrying a person of another religion, yours was a marriage to a person of another country and culture. In this exercise, imagine that instead of marrying a Jew, pretend you are marrying someone from France. You decide that it will be fine to move to France and raise a family there. France is a nice place. It is civilized, cultured, and the food is good. You study French language and become proficient. You read all the books you can about French culture, literature, and art. You begin to feel comfortable living in France, though you may never choose to become a citizen and give up your American background.
Over the last couple of days, we have seen a lot written about how to make a Passover Seder welcoming and inclusive for everyone sitting around the table. This came up so much because there are more interfaith families than ever before, which means there are more people every year who are probably attending their first Seders.
So for all of these husbands and wives, children and grandparents, friends and extended family, Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, writing in The Jewish Exponent, came up with a list of “five readings that interfaith families may want to include in their Passover seder.â€ť
For example, many families over the last few years have started displaying additional items on their Seder plate â€“ most notably an orange, to represent â€śwomen’s leadership roles and full empowerment in Jewish life,â€ť Rabbi Raphael says. But she offers another unique item for the Seder: an artichoke. It has â€śmany petals, with thistle and a heart,â€ť she says, and that represents the Jewish people.
â€śLike the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question of interfaith marriage. Let this artichoke on the seder plate tonight stand for the wisdom of God’s creation in making the Jewish people a population able to absorb many elements and cultures throughout the centuries — yet still remain Jewish. Let the thistles protecting our hearts soften so that we may notice the petals around us.â€ť
Although most families only hold Seders the first two nights, her ideas shouldnâ€™t be constricted to the Seder table â€“ or just Passover. Any family gathering, whether itâ€™s Thanksgiving or Shabbat, is a good opportunity to, as we like to say at JOI, open your tent and welcome in all who approach.
Tonight, families around the world will gather around their Seder table to remember our time as slaves in Egypt and celebrate our liberation. The themes of the holiday are universal, and we have been posting blogs over the past couple of weeks offering ideas on how to make the Seder, which is knows for having particularly stringent dietary restrictions, more inclusive for those who might be experiencing Passover for the first time.
Our good friend Julie Wiener, writing in her monthly New York Jewish Week column â€śIn the Mix,â€ť relates some of her own thoughts on how a Seder can be truly welcoming for all who attend. Since â€śvirtually every Jewish family is touched by intermarriage,â€ť she writes, there will be more Seders this year populated by those who were raised in another faith.
â€śUnless we have especially dysfunctional families or are, like my daughter Ellie this year, the child asking the Four Questions for the first time, Jews donâ€™t usually find attending Passover Seders all that nerve wracking. (As opposed to the notoriously stressful experience of hosting a Seder, especially for those who first make their homes fully kosher for Passover.)
But for gentile guests whoâ€™ve never before donned a kipa or opened a Haggadah, the holiday â€“ with its numerous rituals and lengthy list of forbidden foods â€“ can be intimidating.â€ť
Julie spoke with people who gave her some wonderfully inventive tips on how to make the Seder feel more inclusive. One of the families assigned each guest a part of the Exodus story to research, and at the Seder each person shared what they had learned. Another woman actually wrote her own Haggadah with quotes from American history â€śso that people who are not Jewish can understand the universality of it.â€ť
We think these are all great ideas because they speak to the common theme of the holiday - togetherness. While “welcoming the stranger” is a touchstone for essential Jewish behavior, it is also a universal behavior we all can aspire too this Passover season. Happy Passover.
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the Jewish Outreach Instituteâ€™s Passover in the Matzah Aisles program sites. Congregation Bâ€™nai Israel of Danbury, Ct, brought a taste of Passover to their local Super Stop & Shop. Throughout the day, they had enthusiastic synagogue volunteers ready to meet, greet, and offer a Passover treat to passers-by. Skillfully led by volunteer Doreen Waver, this small, Conservative congregation did a wonderful job of gathering and training volunteers for the event. At any given moment, a shopper could have been greeted by a team of six outreach volunteers! This truly shows that running successful Public Space Judaism programming can be done â€“ and done very well â€“ by even one small organization!
Doreen saw this event as a â€śchance to establish initial, personal connections with the community and share the excitement of the holiday with anyone who stops by.â€ť Her team did this quite effectively, by exploring the aisles and entrances of the store, and truly engaging shoppers in conversation and offering delicious Passover chocolate samples. The event also featured raffles, delicious Passover recipes, and childrenâ€™s activities, such as coloring and games. Another volunteer shared â€śI just think that itâ€™s was a wonderful opportunity to outreach some traditions to the community and for them to sample and find out what Passover is about. This was our fist time, and look forward to doing it again next year.â€ť This year, over 18 communities are hosting Passover in the Matzah Aisles, from Austin to LA to Jacksonville to Portland, OR. Please let us know if youâ€™d like to bring it to your community next year! Happy Passover!
While there are some who may disagree with Chabadâ€™s ideology and their practices, and others who may even be resentful of some public stands that they may take on other movements in the continuum of the Jewish community, Chabad has two of Passover programs this year that are worthy of notice.
First, somewhat consistent with our own Passover in the Matzah Aisle program, Chabad rabbis made themselves available in many supermarkets this Passover season as â€śPassover Experts.â€ť They set up tables near the Passover food section, ready to answer any questions about Passover and Passover food items. While this approach may be designed more for those already on the inside of the community, and is certainly coming from a particular perspective on observance, I have to admit that as I pondered the food items this year, there were many questions that bubbled to the surface.
Second, Chabad set up an International Seder Finder on line where people can find a Seder from Kansas to Kazakhstan, and everywhere in between. Even if the Seder finder did not really make its way into the secular press and would require some hunting on the part of the target population, this is a useful tool for those not so close to the inside of the community. Of course, the sedarim (plural for seder) listed are only those at Chabad centers around the world and I would have preferred a more community-wide approach. And it also includes all of the Passover events sponsored by the local Chabad center (and is not selective for the intended audience).
Nevertheless, I would welcome this as a service provided by local communities and coordinated by Community Outreach Coordinators as it is an important step forward in reaching those on the periphery of the community.
The karpas doesnâ€™t have to be the only thing green about your Passover Seder. Earth Day happens to fall on the third day of Passover this year, so the folks at The Jew and the Carrot, a website devoted to â€śJews, food, and contemporary issues,â€ť have come up with a guide for holding a Seder that is delicious, healthy, and easy on the environment.
Their goal is to encourage people to host a â€śsustainableâ€ť Seder, which means keeping the traditions without damaging the environmental, economic, or social resources that future generations will need. They suggest everything from using non-toxic cleaning products to rid your house of chametz (bread crumbs), to buying organic, free range eggs.
Passover is a time to commemorate the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt and our journey from slavery to freedom. Itâ€™s also a time to celebrate the arrival of spring â€“ a season that represents eternal rebirth, renewal and hope. Hosting a sustainable Seder is a great way to celebrate both.
We see outreach to interfaith families and unengaged Jews in a similar light - as a kind of rebirth and renewal of the Jewish people, one that advances the cause of Tikkun Olam (healing the world). This Passover, as we recount the story of our liberation, lets look at what we can all do to strengthen and grow the future of the Jewish community. And since we know that there will be many people sitting around the Passover table this year for whom this is the first Passover experience, perhaps we might consider how attractive and accessible a “green” seder can be â€“ especially for those of other religious backgrounds who are now part of our families.
If you held a Purim carnival at your synagogue or Jewish institution that attracted 1,000 people, would you consider the event a success? If your goal was to have a large turn out, then your answer to the question is probably a resounding â€śyes, it was.â€ť However, if your goal was to engage those who attended the carnival, you must actually know who showed up in order to determine your success. For that, you need an effective name collection technique.
Several weeks ago, Congregation Emanu-El in New York City took advantage of JOIâ€™s name collection methodology at their annual Purim Carnival, collecting the program attendeesâ€™ interests and contact information through a fun, quick and easy raffle. Amy Geldzahler, Department Manager of the Department of Lifelong Learning Congregation Emanu-el, implemented the raffle after learning about JOIâ€™s best outreach practices and methodology. She later reflected on her experience with the raffle:
â€śâ€¦it has actually been very interesting to see how it works in real-life. The activity of collecting names in a way other than a sign-in sheet was a great way to engage with people, a chance for education with the signs we put on the table, and it was nice to give them something back in exchange for their information (a chance to win a Purim-related prize).â€ť
Utilizing incentive-based name collection like Amyâ€™s raffle is a win-win situation for both those planning, and those attending the event. It provides greeters and name collectors with an unobtrusive technique to gather key contact information they can use to follow-up with program attendees, as well as providing the participants with an opportunity to meet friendly representatives from the Jewish institution. Plus, they get to win an attractive, program-related prize! If your synagogue or Jewish institution had success with a raffle or other unobtrusive, name collection technique with a unique incentive, we at JOI would love to hear about it!
At JOI, one of our methods for lowering the barriers to participation in Jewish life is to use positive, inclusive language. This can mean using words or phrases like â€śof a different backgroundâ€ť instead of â€śnon-Jew.â€ť Although these distinctions might seem inconsequential, they often make the difference between someone feeling welcomed, and someone feeling singled out.
To illustrate the power of words, our own Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Liz Marcovitz wrote an opinion piece for the JTA on how Passover is a good opportunity to eliminate such language from our speech so we can â€śwelcome and include all those who wish to engage with Judaism in our Big Tent.â€ť
Negative language has the ability to oppress people, make them feel like they donâ€™t belong. Rabbi Olitzky and Liz believe we should stop â€śdefining those who are different from us by using negative words and stereotypes,â€ť and they offer a suggestion on how to take steps in that direction.
As you sit around the Passover seder table this year, be conscious of the words you use to describe others. Consider their impact because all too often we forget that words have the power to marginalize and oppress members of our society.
This holiday, we invite you to make this pledge and bring it your seder table: “I promise to the best of my ability to eliminate from my vocabulary all words that are hurtful, insensitive and oppressive of others, and include only words that are welcoming, sensitive and liberating.”
Please join us in taking this pledge to help create a truly inclusive and welcoming Jewish community.