Community Seders bring us together on Passover – Dayenu!

MARCH 8, 2018 – As sunset approaches on Friday, March 30, and Saturday, March 31, Jews all over the world will observe the centuries-old tradition of sitting down to a Passover Seder, the ritual feast that commemorates the exodus from Egypt.

Some will host families and friends, setting the table with treasured dishes filled with recipes handed down from generations past.

Many living on the North Shore will choose to join one of over a half dozen community Seders led by spiritual leaders at synagogues in Beverly, Gloucester, Marblehead, Peabody, and Swampscott.

“A community Seder may be someone’s only opportunity to have a Seder. They may not have one at home, they may not have family, they may be out on their own,” said Rabbi David Meyer, who will lead 180 to 200 people at a Saturday night Seder that is already sold out at Temple Emanu-el in Marblehead. “While we like to say everyone has a seat at a table, it’s not always true.”

Rabbi Meyer credits the popularity of Temple Emanu-El’s Seder in part to the hard-working volunteers who cook all the food in the temple’s kitchen. “There is a very heimish [Yiddish for homey] feel that all the food has been cooked by your fellow congregants,” he said.

Heidi Greenbaum, one of the kitchen organizers, has volunteered at Temple Emanu-El since becoming a member 19 years ago, helping with the Seder for the last decade.

“Many people who have never met before come together to help shop, prep, cook, bake, set tables, and more,” she said. “You see new relationships forming and feel a strong sense of community.”

On the same night a mile down the road in Swampscott, Congregation Shirat Hayam will hold a Seder fully catered by Becky Convincer. Rabbi Michael Ragozin expects a mix of congregants without local family, and those who choose to attend a community Seder “because they enjoy it. We try to tell as much of the story through song, led by Cantor Elana Rozenfeld and the Ruach Band,” he said.

Rabbi Alison Adler will use the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov as the central theme when she leads between 80 and 100 congregants at Temple B’nai Abraham’s second night community Seder in Beverly, which will be catered by Levine’s Kosher Meat Market.

‘“The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, and even in every day,’” she said, quoting Nachman, a great-grandson of the Hasidic movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov.   

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center, agreed. “The theme of Passover is always Exodus. The question is, ‘What’s the definition of Exodus?’ For every person, their personal exodus is going to be different depending on what area of restriction or limitation they’re experiencing. This will be a journey of freedom from that.”   

Based on past years, Rabbi Schusterman expects from 45 to 75 people will attend the Chabad’s first night Seder, which his wife, Raizel, and volunteers will prepare. “Because Passover dietary laws are very specific and strict, this is one of the things you just can’t outsource,” he said.

At Temple Sinai in Marblehead, Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez, his wife Cynthia, and a volunteer congregant couple will cook and prepare their first night community Seder, which is capped at 50 attendees “to try to keep that homey, intimate feeling,” the rabbi said.

Born and raised in Panama, where his family has been a part of the Jewish community for 130 years, Rabbi Cohen-Henriquez has vivid memories of attending community Seders during his youth. Two international influences he will bring to Temple Sinai’s Seder are his family’s time-honored Sephardic Caribbean charoset recipe and a unique ritual he picked up a few years ago in Los Angeles from a Persian community he worked with: Participants whip each other lightly with leeks during “Dayenu” to imitate the Egyptian taskmasters who whipped the Jewish slaves.

Rabbi Steven Lewis and Temple Ahavat Achim are hosting a second night Seder in Gloucester. As a sign of our times and the welcoming spirit of the temple, both a chicken and a vegetarian meal are offered at the Seder, which is always a sellout.

The recent uptrend of community synagogue Seders does not surprise Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University Professor of American Jewish History and Chief Historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community. He traces the rise, fall, and revival of synagogue Seders to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Reform Judaism de-emphasized outward ritualized worship (such as celebrating a Seder) in favor of a focus on beliefs and ethics.

By the time the tide turned in the mid 20th century, many Jews had never experienced a family Seder. “Synagogues really took on the role of teaching how to make a Seder,” Sarna said.

Years later, with the advent of more Jewish education, the convenience of kosher-for-Passover foods, and the availability of new haggadahs and “how-to” Judaism books, creating a Seder at home became less intimidating and the trend shifted away from the communal and back to intimate family Seders.

Although Sarna has not studied whether the trend is reversing yet again back to community Seders, he would not be surprised if that was the case, citing the rise of intermarriage and the increase in women working outside the home.

“Making a big Seder at home is very difficult, especially if you didn’t grow up with one,” he said.

While Rabbi Meyer acknowledged that many people attend a community Seder because they have nowhere else to go or don’t have the time to make a Seder at home, he stresses that many choose to come simply because they enjoy the camaraderie and the opportunity to learn more about the holiday.

“The communal Seder is one of the few occasions when the silos of participation in temple life are broken through,” he said. “Religious school families, seniors, young professionals, different aged groups – everyone sees everyone. Those kinds of opportunities don’t pop up that often during the course of the year.”

Community Seders

Most sell out, so try to reserve a seat early:

Temple B’Nai Abraham
200 E. Lothrop St., Beverly
Second Night:
$40/adult. Children: Free/ages 0-5; $10/ages 6-12; $18/ages 13-22
978-927-3211, tbabeverly.org

Temple Ahavat Achim
86 Middle St., Gloucester
Second Night:
$36/adult before March 16; $40/adult after March 16;
$18/Children ages 4-13; free/children 3 and under.
978-281-0739, taagloucester.org

Temple Emanu-El
393 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead
Second Night
Members: $25/8 years and older; $18/ages 3 to 7; free/ages 2 and under. Non-members: $36/8 years and older;
$25/ages 3 to 7; free/ages 2 and under.

781-631-9300, emanu-el.org

Temple Sinai
1 Community Road, Marblehead
First Night:
Members: $36/adult; $18/child under 12.
Non-members: $45/adult; $18/child under 12.
781-631-2763, templesinaiweb.org

Temple Ner Tamid
368 Lowell St., Peabody
First Night:
Members: $42/adult, $15/child (12 and under).
Non-members: $52/adult, $15/child.
978-532-1293, templenertamid.org

Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center
682 Lowell St., Peabody
First Night:
$40/adult reserve by March 20; $50 after March 20.
$25/child (12 and under)
978-977-9111, http://www.jewishpeabody.com

Congregation Shirat Hayam
55 Atlantic Ave., Swampscott
Second Night:
$60/adults; $25/children (ages 2-8); Free: (under 2)
781-599-8005, shirathayam.org 

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Walnut Street Shul Preserves the Future

Rabbi Kagedan proudly stands at the Walnut Street Synagogue bimah.

Unbeknown to the ten Chelsea families who founded the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Shalom in 1897, they had erected their synagogue in a city that in their lifetimes would become home to the largest percentage of Jews of any other city in the United States except New York.

 

In 1890, 82 Jews lived in Chelsea; by 1910, that number swelled to 11,000, one of every three residents. By 1930, almost half of Chelsea was Jewish, earning it the moniker, “Yerushalayim d’America.” If it seemed like there was a synagogue on almost every corner, that’s because there was: in its 1.8 square miles, Chelsea housed 18 synagogues.

 

When tragedy struck and the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 reduced most of the city, including Agudath Shalom, to ashes, the shul’s immigrant founders were undaunted. They rolled up their sleeves and in 1909 rebuilt the synagogue on Walnut Street, which inspired the new building’s nickname, the Walnut Street Shul.

 

Designed by architect Harry Justin Joll, the magnificent building boasts ceiling frescoes painted by immigrant artists and an awe-inspiring ark by Sam Katz, the renowned master woodworker from the Ukraine who made Chelsea his home in the 1920’s.

 

Fast forward to 2017, and most everything about Chelsea has changed.

 

Gone are the kosher butchers, bakeries and religious and cultural institutions. Yiddish and Hebrew have been replaced by the mother tongues of recent immigrants from Central America, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. According to the most recent Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies survey, Chelsea’s Jewish population has shrunk to statistical insignificance.

 

Of the 18 synagogues, two remain: Temple Emmanuel and the Walnut Street Synagogue.

 

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The Walnut Street Synagogues’s congregants are determined to revitalize their synagogue and, while they’re at it, to blaze a new trail for Orthodox Judaism. Last September, they hired Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first female clergy member in the United States to preside in an Orthodox synagogue using the title “Rabbi.”

 

Within the world of Orthodox Jewry, this is a big deal.

 

Rabbi Kagedan attended Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s religious training program founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the Bronx, New York. Because rabbi is a masculine word, Rabbi Weiss allows his graduates to adopt whatever title they want.

 

Some choose rabba (a feminized version of rabbi) or maharat (a Hebrew acronym Rabbi Weiss invented that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality and religious law). When Rabbi Kagedan and her two female classmates graduated in 2015, she alone chose the title rabbi.

 

“It was the title that most accurately described the work that I trained to do. Like calling a doctor ‘Doctor,’” she said. “People did try to discourage me because it hasn’t been a typical choice in Orthodoxy, but I always wanted to serve the community and use my training and knowledge to support the Jewish community with pastoral and halachik needs.”

 

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which represents over a thousand Orthodox rabbis across the United States, saw the matter differently. It adopted a policy in the fall after Rabbi Kagedan’s graduation prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.

 

 

“Should it be allowed? Who’s going to make it illegal?” asked Jonathan Sarna, the prominent author, historian and Brandeis University professor who has written extensively about American Judaism. “In America, the congregants make their own decisions. We don’t have a Chief Rabbi. We don’t have a Ministry of Religion. Every congregation is, in a sense, a law unto itself,” he said by phone from Jerusalem.

 

None of these religious politics mattered to Board Secretary Richard Zabot, whose grandparents arrived in Chelsea in 1905 from Russia and helped found the Walnut Street Synagogue. In Rabbi Kagedan, he saw a perfect fit. “She showed a willingness to work with the unknown in order to achieve our goal: the rejuvenation of our synagogue,” he said.

 

Fellow Board member Eddie Medros, who grew up in Chelsea in the 1950s and attended the Elm Street Synagogue, agrees. “She is infectious with her drive and enthusiasm. She brings warmth, passion, inclusiveness and a love of Judaism,” he said, noting she has already reached out to the local community in a meaningful way.

 

The attraction was mutual. “The shul presents a challenge, which I am always up for. I also feel committed to keeping a shul that has existed for so many years going. Continuity is powerful,” she said.

 

Devra Zabot, Richard’s daughter and events chair of the shul’s museum, described the extensive vetting process Rabbi Kagedan received before the synagogue board offered the ultimate vote of confidence. “Given that the board members are all over the age of 70 and mostly male, this was a heavily discussed decision,” she said.

 

In the ten months she has been at the spiritual helm, Rabbi Kagedan has been busy learning the ropes and making connections with the greater Jewish and local Chelsea communities. Almost immediately upon arrival, she led the High Holiday services and organized a Chanukah celebration with a klezmer band that attracted over 150 people, including Zahava Stern, a new young member.

 

“I met a lot of people who grew up in Chelsea and were bar or bat mitzvah-ed in this shul, but have since moved out to Sharon or Brookline. They were so excited to come back and see an active community in a place they hold so dear to their heart,” she said.

 

Stern also noted that Chelsea’s location attracts families from the North Shore, East Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. “It’s a secret gem right in the middle of the action,” she said.

 

The Walnut Street Synagogue offers monthly Shabbat and holiday services, classes on a variety of Jewish topics and holidays, and pastoral counseling and services. Rabbi Kagedan is the founding member of the Chelsea Interfaith Council and has met with the City Manager and other non-profit organizations about partnerships and integrating the shul with the Chelsea community.

 

The shul is supported by its board and members and by the Chelsea community at large, including citizens, city councilors and non-profit organizations. There are 120 members, and it operates as a fully Orthodox shul, with a mechitza on Shabbat and during high holidays services. The Jewish Chelsea Home generously opens its doors to the Rabbi and her family and guests to stay over on Shabbat.

 

Somehow, Rabbi Kagedan also finds time to serve on several professional and religious boards. “My peers have been largely supportive and open. Once people meet me and get to know me and see or experience the work I am doing, there is less anxiety and hype about being a woman Orthodox rabbi and people see me as just simply an Orthodox rabbi,” she said.

 

For now, Chelsea and the Walnut Street Synagogue are her prime focus. “Chelsea was at one time a real center of Jewish life in the region. My priority is to get Chelsea back on the radar of Jews in Massachusetts and to let people know the Walnut Street Synagogue is operational,” she said.

 

This is music to Richard Zabot’s ears. He remembers as a child when all 1,109 seats would be occupied during the High Holidays. “The shul hasn’t lost any of its charm or awe. We’re inviting 900 new people to join us this Yom Tov and be part of the preservation of the future,” he said.