Pesach. What a holiday. It’s got everything – history, theology, family, customs, commandments, emotions – no wonder it’s the most celebrated Jewish event (2001-2002 National Jewish Population Study). What normally happens at Penn is that all 300+ Orthodox and most of the other affiliated students go home (or to friends’ homes). Then, Seder night, hundreds of people show up at Hillel, people for whom this might be their first time in the building all year – or ever. Normally they have one huge (=impersonal), communal (=boring) Seder, for all these hundreds of people, led by the Hillel rabbi. Now as good as he may be, it’s hard to have a meaningful, personal, and impacting Seder when it’s 1-on-300. When that Seder fills up, Hillel would turn people away, giving them a Seder-to-go kit and telling them to do it on their own — even worse than the first option. Can you believe that?! People come to Hillel looking for a meaningful, fun, Jewish experience and they get turned off/away, and likely turned off from Judaism! Chabad also runs Seders, and also for a mass of people led by one rabbi (with some help from some imported Chabad bochurim).
After I heard about the state of affairs at Penn for Pesach, I spoke to my parents: “Mommy, Tati-“, I said, “I love you and I love Seders at home but this year I’m staying at Penn to lead Seders”. And my wonderful and understanding parents lovingly gave their approval, saying that they’d miss me, but that they were proud of me. Then I began to speak to friends, people who cared, and/or people for whom going home wasn’t a giving.
“…imagine if there were some small, intimate, explanatory, engaging Seders where these hundreds of people can find that fun and meaningful part of Judaism that they’re searching for. Imagine if these people could be given a positive Jewish experience and maybe change their perspective on Judaism for the rest of their lives.
Imagine if you can be that difference. Who better to provide this experience for them then fellow students, who can share their knowledge, passion and familiarity for Judaism in a relevant and friendly way? Who can better relate to them as peers, and as conduits into Judaism and a Jewish community? And what is Pesach anyway, other than a means of of connecting Jews, to our shared history, to our heritage, and to each other!
I know this is a lot to ask and everyone wants to be home/somewhere comfortable. Great. But imagine the difference you can be making in someone’s life who doesn’t have that warm, loving place to go to. You can go home for spring break, for the last days, or for any other day – but on Pesach, the Jews of Penn need you to be here for them…”
By the end, and without much further convincing necessary, there were 13 of us who decided to stay and a friend from Stern who volunteered to come as well. (This isn’t to say that anyone who didn’t stay didn’t care, but these 13 people did show extraordinary and true devotion.)
The next step was preparing, even more than 30 days in advance. We had quite a formidable task – learning how to run interesting and enjoyable Seders that were also genuine and halachik for people who didn’t know what halacha was and who might never have been to a Seder before, or at least not one they enjoyed. To assist us, we organized sessions with the aforementioned Hillel and Chabad rabbis, experts in running similarly oriented Seders. The Conservative Hillel rabbi gave a wonderful session, highlighting important ideas to keep in mind, good points to bring up in discussion, and strategies for facilitating meaningful conversations. One thing, however, that didn’t sit as well with me was when he said that in order to provide unaffiliated students with a meaningful experience, we’d have to (and I quote) “throw halacha out the window”. In whatever sense it was meant, the point was clear – the priority should be to engage students in meaningful discussion; the Seder was but an expendable means. I have a suspicion that the Chabad rabbi heard about this, because in his session the next week, his main and only point was to forget about meaning and just get the students to do the mitzvahs, for therein lies the only meaning. Forget about discussions and philosophy – just get them to drink 4 revi’is of wine and eat a k’zayit of matzah. There was a lot that we gained from the sessions, but that contrasting and explicit dichotomy was the most striking. Could one really not run a Seder for unaffiliated college students that both adheres to its requirements and contains meaningful content? We were going to try and find out… (As an aside: I find it incredibly amazing at the gap between existing models of outreach: you either have right-wing, ultra-Orthodox kiruv organizations or non-Orthodox, pluralisitc, fluffy, organizations. How come there’s no modern religious groups/people doing this kind of stuff, people who are deeply rooted in Torah, Judaism, and devotion to God and are also full participants in the modern society around them? These people have the unique opportunity (and responsibility) to be ambassadors of Judaism to the people around them.)
We almost worked with NJOP’s PAA but in the end we decided to run it by ourselves. Well not all by ourselves; we got help from Hillel’s CCP grants, which sponsored “A Night to Remember” Haggadahs. The reason we chose those was not just because they had the traditional text and transliterations for the essential parts, but because they had incredible pictures, cartoons, stories, essays, and other reading material for all ages and interests. As it turns out, the author, Mishael Zion, was coming to Penn to give a talk about the Seder, so he gave us a fantastic private session afterward on how to run Seders with his Haggadahs. After acquiring all of these tools, tidbits, and ideas, we divided up into 5 groups of 3 (except one of 2) and set about preparing the actual Seders. It was also at this point that the Kentucky Shabbaton occurred, as did many midterms and group projects, but even with a lack of time to spare, everyone put in a lot of time and effort to ensure that our Seders would be ready, remarkable, and rewarding.
More on the actual Seders soon…