Get Thee to a Seder!

by Vicki Garlock on March 26, 2018

This Friday, March 30, is quite the auspicious day! We have the full moon, the start of Passover, and Good Friday. So, pick something to celebrate/commemorate!

White House seder (2016), hosted by the Obama family. Wikimedia Commons: public domain

If you’ve never attended a Passover seder, this is a great year to do it. Well, any year is a good year for a Passover seder, but seders are usually held on the 1st or 2nd night of Passover week, so many celebrations will fall on the weekend this year.

You don’t need to know much to attend a seder since everyone just follows along in a booklet, so step out of your comfort zone! In the world of religious rituals, seders are relatively informal and fun, so they can be a great experience for the whole family. Here are some tips for getting yourself to a seder.

Ask a Jewish Friend
Many Jews host seders in their homes. This is a great first seder opportunity because you can simply ask your friend whatever questions you want — either beforehand or during the seder itself. Follow the same basic social rules used for any dinner at someone else’s house. For example, you might want to ask what the dress code is. Some families dress up a bit for their seders; others keep them casual. You can also offer to bring something. Flowers for the table is an easy one. If you bring something to eat/drink, it should be labeled “kosher.” Kosher items can be found at most large supermarkets, but if this already sounds too difficult for you, then just show up empty-handed. Your friend will be excited you are interested and happy to host.

Touch Base with Your Local Synagogue or University
Your local synagogues are likely to be either part of the Conservative or Reform traditions, and they often open up their seders to the broader community. Similarly, most colleges/universities have Jewish Student groups, and they often host seders, as well. So, yes, you can “google it.” Seders will show up on synagogue/university web sites or as Facebook events. These seders will almost certainly be in English, and people of all ages will be there.

Feel free to contact the organizers just to be sure it’s OK to attend. As a seder host, it’s always nice to have some idea of how many people are planning to show up. You can also take this opportunity to double-check the dress code. University-hosted events are likely to be pretty informal because they are geared to the student population. Synagogue-hosted events might be a bit less casual. There’s no need to break out your formal wear, but jeans and tank tops are probably not your best option either. You should also feel free to ask about money. Is there a particular charge (per person or per family) for attending? Can you make a donation to the synagogue or student group and, if so, do they have a suggested amount? Can you make a donation to a local charity and, if so, is there a suggested amount or a particular cause being focused on this year?

Check for Local Interfaith Groups
If your city/town has an interfaith group, they might be offering an interfaith/community seder. These are usually hosted by the Jewish community (since they’re the ones who know what they’re doing), but there will be plenty of non-Jews in attendance, and they won’t know what they’re doing either! Lots of explanation will be provided along the way, and everyone will learn together. The first seder I ever attended was an interfaith seder in Atlanta. The story was written by one of the rabbis at the synagogue, and it had a social justice slant to it, which was really awesome.

Show Up at Chabad House
Chabad is the Orthodox Hasidic movement that began in Poland and Ukraine. Outreach is what the Chabad community does best, so they are always very accommodating. If you show up, they will welcome you! However, here are a couple of additional considerations.

  1. Call to be sure the seder you plan to attend will be conducted in English. If anyone is offering a seder in Hebrew, it’s the Chabad community, so double-check. Seder evenings can run a bit long, but if it’s all in Hebrew, it will be hard to follow. They will provide cues along the way — to keep everyone on track — and whomever you’re sitting next to will also help, but I wouldn’t recommend a Hebrew seder for your first one.
  2. Most Chabad rabbis refrain from touching women in public. That includes shaking hands. If you have a chance to meet the rabbi, don’t take offense if he simply nods toward the girls/women and shakes hands with the boys/men.

Again, feel free to ask, preferably in advance, about money. Is there a charge for attending? Can you make a donation to Chabad? Can you donate to a local charity and do they have one in mind?

Two More Tidbits
The booklet used during the seder is called the Hagaddah. It contains the story, found in Exodus, of the Hebrews fleeing Egyptian slavery. It also has instructions for eating the seder foods in a particular order and drinking the four cups of wine/grape juice. There are certain features of the Hagaddah that are always the same, but there’s a fair amount of leeway in how the Exodus story, itself, is told. That means every seder is somewhat unique. Several years ago, I attended a seder at a friend’s home. The Haggadah we used had been in her family for decades.

You (and your kids) are not required to drink 4 cups of wine! There is almost always a grape juice option, and you don’t have to drink the entire cup every time.

My approach is to show up with a kind heart and genuine interest. Then, I rely on the people around me to serve as my guides. I do a bit of background research, so I don’t completely embarrass myself, but I’m not afraid to ask questions or to make mistakes. If this approach makes you queasy, check out the web resources found here and here for a bit more information on what to expect at a seder. Or, contact me directly, and I’ll try to answer any questions you might have.

Chag Sameach! (That’s the Hebrew equivalent of “Happy Holiday!”)

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