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By Aimee Ellis
At Jewish summer camp (Camp Tawonga, to be specific), I felt a little different than the other campers. I wasnât raised religiously Jewish and was also from a lower income interfaith family. I attended public school with mostly non-white students and had never been to a synagogue in my life. I didnât have a clear understanding of my Jewish identity. My Jewish mother was the first in our family to stop Jewish religious practice, so she was struggling with how to best integrate being Jewish into my upbringing.
These days, my mother sometimes cries because of guilt she feels about not having provided me with a Jewish education or religious experience. I tell her itâs OK because I am the face of the new American Jewish identity. I also make efforts to encourage other Jews from interfaith and mixed race families to feel proud of their identity. I frequently hear from âJews like meâ that they want nothing to do with the mainstream Jewish community because they âarenât really Jewishâ or feel concerned theyâll be questioned, shamed or called out for not being Jewish enough.
My one Jewish connection, though, was Jewish summer camp where I didnât know the prayers, but was relieved they had a large display to read off of so I didnât feel ashamed or afraid to learn. To date, they are the only Jewish prayers I can recall from memory. As an adult, during my years working as a Jewish professional, I was astounded by the subtle difference in attitude I sometimes experienced within the Jewish community. I felt scrutinized whenever I asked questions about Jewish religious practice or shared that I didnât know much about it. It was assumed that because I was a Jewish professional, I automatically knew about the religious practice. The subtle bad attitudes I experienced sometimes caused me to feel unwelcomed and excluded.
Iâm sensitive about my lack of knowledge of religious practice and feel ashamed when I donât have special support and an acknowledgement that itâs OK if you donât know certain things. When I go to synagogue, it would mean the world to me if the rabbi stated that they wanted to welcome everyone, including those not familiar with the prayers and practice. When I donât know the prayers, I feel embarrassed and afraid someone will notice and think Iâm not a good enough Jew. As for Jewish leaders and community members already going to great lengths to be inclusive toward every kind of Jew, I salute youâit doesnât go unnoticed.
Our work is far from over, particularly with the population composure and religious practice preference changes taking place in America that are reflected within the Jewish community.Â Each and every one of us can and should continue to find new and creative ways to address these challenges. Special support systems for âJews like meâ are much needed and can make a big difference in strengthening the diversity of our community.
Aimee Ellis is a San Francisco based speaker and writer on the topic of secular, interfaith, mixed race, and intersectional Jewish identity. Linked here areÂ past articlesÂ and aÂ webinarÂ on this topic.
Growing up with a dad who was a Navy pilot, my family celebrated Jewish holidays in some pretty far-flung places around the world. We gathered with other Jewish military families or new Jewish friends in whatever country we happened to be living in. Seders were lovely, multi-cultural and welcoming.
In Morocco, we sang Passover songs with Sephardic melodies. In Iceland, my parents welcomed the only other Jewish family they could find for a small, intimate seder. Stationed in Virginia Beach, we heard the hagaddah read with a southern accent.
Each year weâd celebrate with new friends in a new location somewhere in the world.Â Far from our extended family in Boston, seders became a way for us to feel close to something from homeâJudaism.
I asked my mom Mary, who was raised Irish Catholic and converted when she married my dad, what those seders were like for her. She said, âI remember thinking, âSo this is what itâs like to be Jewish. Youâre linked to all these people around the world; Jews who come together to celebrate their ethnicity and their community.ââ She had never experienced anything like it.
Then, when I was 10, my dad retired after 20 years in the Navy and my parents moved back to Boston to be closer to their families. Thatâs when we started going to seders at my Jewish grandparentsâ home. Tovah and Jacob attended an Orthodox synagogue and kept kosher. Their seders were more serious affairs. They were completely in Hebrew and lasted for hours.
My parents, brother and I didnât understand much Hebrew and Passover suddenly became a stressful holiday. I felt lost at the seder, often on the wrong page of the hagaddah and afraid to make a misstep. I didnât want to read the Four Questions, terrified that I might mispronounce the transliterated Hebrew. While I respected (and still do) my grandparents’Â approach to Passover, it just didn’t feel accessible to me.
Seders lost their joy for me, and so I opted to avoid them. It wasnât until recently, with my own children, that I have started to rediscover and re-imagine the tradition, especially as an opportunity to pause and be thankful for our freedom and remember those who still are not free.
This year, my husband and I are inviting our families to a personalized, less structured seder. In addition to telling the Passover story, weâll spend time talking about refugees in the world today, fleeing war in search of a safe place to raise their children.
Weâll explain everything to our kids as we go along and answer all their questions, so no one feels left behind. In addition to the traditional items, our seder plate will feature an orange, a symbol of people around the world who are marginalized or excluded.
Our little girl, Molly, 8, will read the Four Questions and weâll sing songs and share stories.Â Weâll try to recapture the charm and magic of my familyâs seders in Reykjavik, Casablanca and beyondâŚÂ in hopes that our children grow up looking forward to Passover as a meaningfulÂ and inclusive holiday.
By Jared David Berezin
When our eyes begin to burn and tear up my wife and I look at each other and laugh. Thatâs when we know the horseradish is ready. We also bake our own homemade matzah, and the unleavened flat bread resembles pita or injera (Ethiopian bread). Preparing Passover-friendly food from scratch and arranging the seder table is a ritual my wife and I enjoy as much as the seder itself.
For many people, Passover is a journey that begins well before the first cup of wine (or grape juice). Some have been to dozens of seders in the past. Indeed, some of our seder guests may have attended a different seder (or two!) earlier in the week, while others have never been to a seder before. Regardless of a personâs experience or faith, everyone comes to the table with conscious and unconscious expectations, desires and concerns.
Ever since I can remember, Passover has always been my favorite holiday. As a restless kid, I could attend the Passover âserviceâ (our familyâs seder) without dressing up and going to synagogue, which also meant not having to sit still for an hour. My grandparents would host our family seder, and as they grew older my mother and aunt assumed the responsibility. Our family seders were always quick, predictable and familiar. I loved being surrounded by family, food and singing. As a teenager Iâd just bring my guitar; it was always nice being able to simply arrive and have everything already prepared and laid out on the table.
Hosting Our Own Inclusive SederÂ
In my twenties, I became more curious about Judaism, particularly its intellectual and social justice elements. A few years later I met the love of my life who was raised Christian and has developed a dislike of all organized religion. Amidst my growing curiosity of Judaism and my love for my girlfriend (now my wife), I began to dream of more inclusive and meaningful Jewish moments and celebrations. I wondered what it would be like to host our own seder, one that could be welcoming for our friends of various faiths and (dis)comfort levels when it comes to religious activities.
Initially, I tried to formulate a highly-strategic seder and haggadah that would satisfy the needs of every person who might happen to join usâfrom Conservative Jews to Buddhists to atheists. I soon realized that although itâs important to be aware of oneâs audience, I found myself drowning out my own individual spiritual beliefs and values. The early drafts were too distant from my vision of an inclusive experience; I had to accept that if I wanted to try new things, my guests and I would simply have to wander through the newness together. Fortunately, the story of Passover centers on faith and risk.
When in Doubt, Look AboutÂ
When I worked in marketing years ago a colleague would often say, âWhen in doubt, look about.â I searched online and read through all of the haggadot I could find, along with any Passover-related information on InterfaithFamily.com and other websites. I wanted to learn how others approach the holiday, along with any stories and songs that I hadnât heard before.
I also reached out to several friends to hear about their seder experiences, as well as my dear friend, Rabbi Lev Baesh, a longtime champion of interfaith marriage and inclusiveness, who is a consultant with InterfaithFamily. My wife and I had performed music the year prior at a seder led by Lev. He interpreted the Passover story in many different waysâsocial, political, economic and psychologicalâand helped me understand how themes from an ancient tale can become relevant and inspire urgency among people of different faiths and backgrounds.
Our Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan Seder ExperimentÂ
What emerged from my research and spiritual searching was a heightened awareness of my own values, questions and priorities. The result was the creation of an imperfect and ever-changing Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan seder that my wife and I have hosted for the past four years. Most of the guests at our seder tend to be interfaith couples with one Jewish partner as well as couples and friends of other faiths. Every year we invite at least one person who has never attended a seder before.
Our accompanying interfaith-humanist-vegan haggadah, which I also revise each year, includes original writing as well as a patchwork of borrowed text, images and songs. The introductory pages of the haggadah recount the Passover story, and explore questions such as âWhy Celebrate if the Story Isnât True?â and âWhy a Vegan Passover Seder?â These questions, and others in the haggadah, offer a way of inviting everyone to explore and question the Passover rituals and their purpose in our lives in new ways. Rather than dump my ideas and beliefs on my friends, I try my best to steer conversations and lead rituals that allow me to learn from them, and all of us to learn from each other. For example, rather than declare what the various items on the seder plate signify, our haggadah asks: âWhat do you think the items on the seder plate represent? How might they connect with oppression, slavery and freedom?â These open-ended questions for which there are no âcorrectâ answers allow guests of all faiths to contribute their perspective and enhance everyone elseâs understanding.
An Incomplete HaggadahÂ
I think the best conversations and learning occur when people are present and looking at one another. When a haggadah has all the information we need, everyone is looking down at their booklets for hours. In contrast, our haggadah is intentionally sparse and incomplete. Before the start of the seder I ask each of our friends, individually, if theyâd like to read a short excerpt of text that I provide. The readings include writings from intellectuals, feminists, rabbis, writers, activists and philosophers of all faiths, and I âscheduleâ them to read at different points in the seder. Itâs fun to pick out certain readings that relate in some way to each of my friends. As the seder progresses and friends share the words on their respective slip of paper, we all in a way become pages in a âhaggadah,â and together we make the seder complete.
Music adds a fantastic quality to any evening, and itâs a huge part of our seder. At the very beginning of the meal, rather than jump right into the Passover story, we all sing a song together. The first year we sang David Crosbyâs âMusic Is Love.â Itâs easy since the repeated lyric is almost a chant: âEveryoneâs sayinâ that music is love, everyoneâs sayinâ itâs love.â My wife and I scatter percussive shakers, drums and a couple acoustic guitars around the room for folks to play, and of course, everyone brings their voices.
In addition to familiar seder songs, such as the African-American Spiritual âGo Down Mosesâ and Dayenu, there are a host of secular songs that touch upon various Passover themes: slavery, oppression, freedom and of course the need to continually ask questions of ourselves and our world. And on the ânight of questions,â I canât help but want to sing Bob Dylanâs âBlowinâ in the Wind,â a song with questions in every verse.
Thinking About Hosting Your Own (Alternative) Seder?
For those who want to embark on your own journey of hosting a seder (or any holiday) in a new way, keep in mind that certain aspects of your alternative rituals and ideas may stir strong reactions (positive or negative) among some of your guests. Inspiration can look and sound different for each of us.
As I was planning my first seder, I remembered Rabbi Lev Baeshâs sage words: âJust remember that Moses had lots of whining to deal with in the story.â Humor is critical! Iâve laughed at myself many times during our seders, particularly when Iâm taking myself too seriously, and laughter creates more laughter and openness. Dig into both the rich traditions of the past and present. Experiment. Do what feels right, and see what happens.
These types of homegrown celebrations take effort on our part, otherwise they wouldnât exist. I think thatâs part of the magic and meaningfulness: the effort, creativity, and time it takes to create a relevant and inclusive Jewish experience. My favorite moments during our seder are when I find myself wandering through the desert behind my guests who have taken the conversation in new directions.
A piece of logistical advice: A seder can be held any evening during Passover. Scheduling ours toward the end of the holiday week allows us to join my familyâs traditional first or second night seder, and our Jewish guests can do the same. Beyond avoiding scheduling conflicts, setting an atypical seder date sets the stage for something new and different, and prepares your guests for a different kind of seder experience.
If you decide to create your own kind of seder, itâs important to remember that if youâre inspired and engaged, those around you will want to participate and be inspired too. Togetherness, making connections, and generating meaning is really what itâs all about. And remember, whatever happens, thereâs always next year!
For more information about Passover and the seder, check out our Guide to Passover for Interfaith Families