(parts I, II, III)
I just want to sum up some final thoughts on the whole Pesach experience. First I’ll post a survey Hillel put out to ~120 students who came to Hillel for Seders. Most of those polled do not regularly eat at Hillel, and over 80% did not go to other activities (services, programs) at Hillel, which is an indication they were not Hillel regulars. Of those polled, around 25% had gone to one of our student-led Seders. The polling options were: strongly agree, agree, somewhat agree, disagree, strongly disagree.
I really enjoyed the student lead seder:Freshmen/Sophomore: strongly agree – 75%; agree 25%Jr/Sr: strongly agree – 64.3%; agree – 21.4%; somewhat agree – 7.1%; strongly disagree 7.1%
I felt welcome at the student lead seder:F/S: strongly agree – 100% (!!)J/S: strongly agree – 85.7%; agree – 14.3%
The leader of the student lead seder was well prepared:F/S: strongly agree – 75%; agree – 16.7%; somewhat agree – 8.3%J/S: strongly agree – 57.1%; agree – 42.9%
I learned new things at the student lead seder:F/S: strongly agree – 58.3%; agree – 33.3%; somewhat agree – 8.3%J/S: strongly agree – 71.4%; agree – 7.1%; somewhat agree – 14.3%; disagree 7.1%
I met new people at the student lead seder:F/S: strongly agree – 66.7%: agree – 25%; disagree – 8.3%J/S: strongly agree – 78.6%; somewhat agree – 14.3%; strongly disagree – 7.1%
We didn’t really need these results to prove anything to ourselves; these results just confirmed to the Hillel staff what we already knew. They were very impressed, especially considering that they were worried at the onset whether we’d know how to talk to unaffiliated students (please, I talk to unaffiliated students for breakfast!). And to all our (theoretical) discreditors who said it couldn’t be done, we did it! We led Seders that were meaningful, traditional, welcoming, engaging. And a lot of mitzvahs were done too! Just some students sharing a good ol’ Jewish experience with other Jewish students…
Another important thing that came out of this experience was the message it showed to the community. We showed that as religious Jews, caring for other Jews and caring about their Judaism is something that we value and that we attempt to address. And not just when it’s convenient and self-serving, but even when it takes sacrifices and hard work and time and effort. My brother told a very touching dvar Torah at my family’s Seder – he talked about how the Chasidim speak of not 4 sons, but 5 sons, with the 5th son being the one who doesn’t even come to the Seder. Hart, he said, is at Penn leading Seders for all those 5th sons. I thought that was the most beautiful thing ever, and it showed how some people really understood this. We tried to talk this up a lot, at Pen and beyond, so that other people would see the importance and might be encouraged/inspired to attempt similar endeavors in the future. In fact, a few people at Penn told me that they were definitely going to join us next year. One student who went home told me that he told his parents “Mom, Dad – I love you and I love Seders at home but here’s what Hart is doing at Penn this year and next year I’m going to join him”. Towards this end, we had the idea of making shirts which we could wear around Penn – the shirts would say “Let My People Stay – Pesach@Penn ’09”. Besides for being mekayem the rule that when 10+ Jews are together for 2+ days there is a chiyuv to make a shirt/sweatshirt, it would also be a great way of publicizing and spreading the message of which we all were a part of. (Sponsorship opportunities are still available – email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.)
Now, as good as the Seders were, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rest of the chag. First of all, we got to lead all of davening (I think I led shacharit, hallel, musaf, layned, read Shir haShirim [my favorite], and gave a dvar Torah) – which was kinduv fun. We also got to be gabbis, run bikkur cholim, give shiurs, lead Shabbat kiddush at Hillel, and host the tisch. But by far the best was all the meals at Hillel. While normally there are all these Orthodox kids overwhelming the place, over the three-day yomtov it was just the 14 of us, and dozens of newcomers – people who only come to Hillel’s kosher dining hall 7 days a year – on Passover! So every meal I got to sit with a few new people, either by joining their table, or inviting them to mine, or speaking to them in line, or complaining with them about the monotonous food choices. By the end I probably knew almost every person sitting down for meals and I had made over 30 new Facebook friends! And because many of the same people would keep coming back and because we were always there, I really got to bond with a lot of these people over the course of many meals. It was really so much fun, and it gave me a taste of what it’d be like to be in a small Jewish community. It was also really depressing when the mass of Orthodox kids came back after yomtov and took over the dining hall again (just kidding guys 😉 ).
Oh, and the tisch! So Friday night we figured we’d add to the load of fun we were having and have a tisch. My grandparents had sent me a package with kosher-for-Passover snacks (as a token of their thinking of me and missing me at their Seder – thanks B&G!) and here was a perfect chance to break those out. We were finishing dinner in Hillel when we had decided to have the tisch and so we figured we’d invite some of the people who were around. Normally these tisches attract only Orthodox kids, and only a certain type of them, but here was a great opportunity to invite some people from a wider crowd and we weren’t about to miss it. Sure enough, a whole group of Conservative students came, brought along by a mutual friend 🙂 And what a tisch it was – we went through some of the songs from the Haggadah, some classic Israeli songs, some typical tisch songs, all of kabbalat Shabbat (since we didn’t sing it at ma’ariv) and more. By the end we were singing some Beatles, but I think that was all of the Kedem wine kicking in. But it was so beautiful – people who otherwise might have never shared in such an experience found out that they knew and loved many of the same songs, and that it’s so much more beautiful when you sing them together. We also got to make new friends, and they were so grateful for us hosting them in our room – a win-win situation for all of us, and for the Jewish people.
Okay fine, by the end of the 3 days we were a little sick of each other and of the food, but it was an experience I wouldn’t give up for the world. For us, for the multitudes of people that we reached, and for the entire community, this was an unforgettable Pesach. Next year we should really all be in ירושלים, but if not, I know where I’ll be.
You’re all welcome to join, at Penn or at your own college/community. Towards that end, we’ll be posting resources, ideas, tips on what worked/didn’t work on this site. It’s empty now but you can check back closer to Pesach – or you can start adding to it!