One of the favorite preoccupations of Jewish communal leaders, it seems, is figuring out – and funding – innovative approaches to engage various interest groups in Jewish life.
Whether it is reaching out to the Next Gen, to families of young children, to teens, to Boomers or any other group, there has been a panoply of creative solutions to the problem of disengagement utilizing books, films, an Open Mike approach, a Shabbat format, new curricula, social action, contests, a nationwide initiative.
The success of these offerings rests in their ability to enable the formation of meaningful relationships. After more than a century of serving Conservative synagogues, we at United Synagogue know that the soul of successful programming hinges on its relational power. Indeed, in the wake of our Centennial this past fall, we initiated a Big Read of Ron Wolfson’s seminal work, Relational Judaism.
Utilizing the book’s teachings, we’ve created conferences for synagogue leaders all over the country about how to create congregations that focus on creating a deep sense of personal connection. And next month, we will be offering a webinar with Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, a pioneer in bringing a relational approach to his kehilla.
But why wait for our webinar? This upcoming week, the Jewish calendar presents a powerhouse opportunity for multi-generational, relational engagement in the form of the Passover Seder.
Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover is the most widely observed. Across the denominational divide, Jews are more likely to attend Seders than, say, Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur services. Additionally, people of other faiths are more likely to be guests at a Passover Seder than any other Jewish observance.
Herein rests the relational opportunity of a lifetime.
I hardly have to hawk the marvelous attributes of the Seder or promote the virtues of the Haggadah, a brilliant guidebook to the creation of living ritual. First-time visitors to Seders are usually struck by the interactive quality of the Passover meal, the iconic questions, songs, history, rituals, characters and commentary, the lively and sometimes argumentative discourse that arises from fulfilling the commandment of envisioning ourselves as the very generation that left Egypt.
The Haggadah distills all the elements of a blockbuster novel or film (and in fact, it has spawned both). It has heroes and villains, a tale of triumph against all odds. It has the revolt of nature, dangerous animals and diseases. It has catchy tunes. It has the Angel of Death.
Each year, I find myself marveling at another aspect of the Seder and each year I am surprised anew by what engages my daughters, wife and Seder guests.
This year, I find myself repeatedly pondering the fourth of the Four Children – the One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.
It seems to me that contained within the character of this “child,” and the Haggadah’s instructions for handling her, is a message for the Jewish community at this very moment, a timely and relevant message for all who are concerned with increasing Jewish engagement by building relationships of meaning.
The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask follows the Wise, the Wicked and the Simple children. Her question is silence. The Haggadah instructs us to respond to her silence with the words, “You open (the conversation) for him, stating, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:8).
Reams of commentary have been written about this intriguing fourth child with various explanations for her silence and explanations of who the “You” is. From a contemporary diagnosis of a learning disability to a psychological assessment of apathy to the silencing shame that comes from lack of Jewish literacy, the character of the Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask resounds for us; indeed, it is a Rorschach blot of a character, taking on numerous shapes and forms.
Having a silent person at one’s Seder is so inconceivable that the Haggadah commands a response. The expected outcome is that by personalizing the story of the Exodus from Egypt, heretofore blocked channels of communication will be opened and the disengaged Seder guest will become a full participant in the Passover kehilla.
As most Seders are often family get-togethers, the Seder also creates a built-in ideal multi-generational community setting where teens can hear the stories of senior citizens, where Shoah survivors can pass their life learnings onto those who have only read about the Holocaust in history books, where Boomers and Empty-Nesters and school children are equal participants, where liberal and conservative points of view can be voiced with an air of tolerance.
In Noam Zion and David Dishon’s groundbreaking Haggadah – A Different Night – filled with sidebar commentaries from around the world, a resonant story accompanies the section on the Four Questions:
Isidor Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, was once asked, "Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood? "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: "Nu, did you learn anything today?" But not my mother. She always asked me a different question: "Izzy," she would say, "Did you ask a good question today?" That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist.
This Passover, may we harness the innate power of our heritage, which mandates that we reach out to those who are isolated in their silence. This year, may we tap into Judaism’s relational essence, building bonds with our tradition and each other that bring multiple levels of meaning to our lives.
Please write and share your Seder questions, stories and shtick with us. What do you like to do around your table? What are your unique traditions, how do you build a kehilla in your home? And how do you take the power of the Passover Seder with you even when the special dishes are packed away and the final piece of matza is consumed? Send your comments to Andrea Glick, co-editor of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.