Pesach – "B’etzem Hayom Hazeh"

Last we saw our team of heroes they were hard at work preparing sessions, delving into the depths of the haggadah, and working on their discussion-leading skills. And then the day was here – the 14th of Nisan. So while the rest of the Jewish community piled out, we dug in and prepared ourselves. We got some last minute much-needed shmurah matza (thanks Ambroses!), invited some last people to the Facebook event we had made, made some photocopies of pictures and banners, and as the evening began to creep in, we made out way to Hillel where we would be running our Seders.

The way we arranged it was for the 5 groups to each have a separate room on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Hillel where we would have our Seders. We then had two greeters at the front door – so that when the swarms of hundreds of students and community members walked through the doors we could direct them either to the ‘big, communal, (boring) Seder straight ahead – or to the small, student-led Seders upstairs’. (In retrospect, one problem was that some students thought that meant they would have to lead the Seders!) And given those options, people did chose to come to our Seders – our 5 Seders filled up at around 20 people each! But it did take a while for people to trickle in, which was good considering that we had to wait a while, as Hillel called the Seders for an hour before tzeis (which is the earliest halachikly possible time). We ended up sitting around our tables, starting conversations, meeting each other, and giving people a chance to skim through the haggadahs (they were a big hit!) – not bad ways to kill time at all!

[From here on in, I will restrict myself to speaking about the Seder I participated in, as my engrossment therein led me to miss out on what was happening at the other Seders.] And so we started. Lu, JHS and I who were leading the Seder divided ourselves among the crowd – and what a crowd we had! By my count there was one African-American convert, two non-Jews (one of whom knew Hebrew better than most people at the table), one girl who had recently found out that she’s Jewish (yes, the one from the previous blog post – she’s come a long way since then), a freshman friend from my Jewish History class (maybe I’ll talk about that class another time), three other freshmen guys, a middle-aged gentlemen from Allentown, and a few more people for a total of 15. There was one first-timer, two second-timers, a bunch for whom this was their first time in Hillel, and most of the remainder for whom this would be their first Seder longer than half-an-hour. We had our task cut out for us.

And it was great. We started going though the Seder, explaining what each step was, throwing in some interesting tidbits for discussion and an occasional classic song. We had each (Lu, JHS, and myself) prepared different things to talk about and so we each led discussions at different parts of the Seder – such as poverty in the world (halves and have-nots) and the social and historical background of the Seder ceremony (the Greco-Roman symposium). We also had a few ice-beakers in the beginning, just going around the room and people introducing themselves and their personal Seder history. What I thought really broke the floodgates open was at Mah Nishtana – we did this activity where we had to go around having a conversation using only questions (‘How are you?’ ‘Are you talking to me?’ ‘Didn’t you hear me the first time?’ etc.). The point was to illustrate the power of questions, but what it also did was add some levity to the table, as people fumbled for questions and we all laughed at each other. From that point in, things just kept getting better and we started really bonding as a group. At one point we asked people what made them feel free, and one girl said that she left her blackberry at home so she could feel free of its mental burden. If that’s not the closest definition to freedom in today’s modern society, I don’t know what it! When we talked about connecting to the past through retelling, our resident African-American answered someone’s doubts on that method by sharing how his family passed down its story of slavery in the not-so-distant past, and how that made it real for him. It was perfect! And without even a glance at a clock, we went on, reading through the stories, pointing out interesting or funny pictures, and different people sharing their thoughts. For the most part it was the three of us leading the discussions, as is wont to happen, but there were definitely many parts where other people jumped in to participate. Then, before we knew it, it was time for the meal and we spent a good chunk of time just eating our fill, talking, decompressing. I was so nice just to be able to talk to each other, share family stories, and hear people’s stories of why they never came to Hillel before, or what their previous misconceptions were. We then had a suspenseful hunt for the afikomen (the Hebrew-speaking Indian found it, and won a plastic piggy-bank!), and someone came in dressed up as Eliyahu Hanavi. It was funny, but most of our previous fears (e.g. How would we explain “sh’foch chamotcha”? What if people didn’t want to eat the marror?) were never even issues – things just went smoothly and easily. It seemed like people just wanted to keep going. We then finished off the final two cups of wine (getting through four cups of Kedem wine was also a great social lubricant 🙂 ) and people still wanted to sing some more songs. So we went through “Go Down Moses”, “Who knows one?”, and we acted out “Chad Gadya”.

By now the effects of the wine were starting to kick in, and it was time to go. That’s when I looked at the clock and saw that nearly 5 hours had passed since we first sat down at the table! 5 hours! And the only person who left early was the guy from Allentown – but only because he had to catch his train back home. The only time complaints we got were from the dining staff who wanted to serve us our food when we were still discussing, and from students who said they wished we’d gone even slower. Even slower than 4+ hours?! Weirdos… Even after we cleared the table and were winding down, a bunch of the people were still hanging around, remembering people’s names, meeting people from the other Seders, coordinating when they would next come back to Hillel. From what I saw and heard from the other Seders, they were all just as successful, if not more so – there were great conversations being had, fantastic activities being carried out, and outlandish Pesach songs being sung. There were relationships being forged, Jewish identities taking shape, and a powerful commemoration of Pesach being celebrated. By the time we let the building that night, I felt like we had truly gone on quite a journey through the unique and memorable experience of the Passover Seder.

To skip a few days ahead, one of those students who had never come to Hillel (nor anything Jewish-related in college) began consistently coming to the Orthodox Community’s weekly Sunday Night Learning, where he was paired up with a chavrutah. Another of those students came back for dinner the next week, and me being the only person he knew there, he sat with me, together with some of my other friends, whom I introduced to my new friend. And the guy from Allentown? I guess he had such a good time because he came back the second night for our Seder again (more on that here). Before he left the second Seder, he came up to me and thanked me for giving meaning to his holiday for the first time in his life. And all this just from our Seder; the other Seder groups have their own stories of people who hence started coming to SNL, or had Jewish-identity changing experiences. I’ll post the full response survey later, but I think these personal stories mean just as much as some numbers on a chart.

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