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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It’s a Good Friday for a Seder

Passover and Easter are highly charged religious holidays. This year, the first Seder falls on Good Friday and it’s a perfect opportunity to reflect on some surprising similarities between the Jewish and Christian springtime commemorations.


Both memorialize important historical events central to the identity and belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, the Passover tradition is a powerful link that defines us and binds us as a people to each other and to God. We share the retelling of our Exodus from bondage in Egypt when God promised to save us and we were delivered from slavery to freedom. For Christians, the week of important historical events leading to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the backbone of their narrative as a people. Both stories are full of pain; both stories transform that pain into salvation.

Like Passover, Easter centers on the family and food. The Seder and Easter dinner are sacred times for families to gather, share a meal and renew their connection to their heritage through ceremony. Both holidays transform bread into ritual symbols. We eat unleavened bread, or matzah, to remember our ancestors who fled so quickly they did not have time to let their bread rise. Matzah is both the bread of our affliction and the sustenance of our freedom. For Christians, too, bread is both sacrament and sacrifice in the form of the Holy Eucharist, a wafer that represents Christ’s body.

Finally, both holidays acknowledge reverence for springtime, the season of renewal and rebirth. The egg, symbol of fertility and new life, plays a prominent role at the Seder as we dip a hardboiled egg in salt water to symbolize both new life and sacrifice. After the meatless (and eggless) Lenten fast, eggs became a staple of the Easter meal to celebrate the end of the privation of Lent. Today, dyeing Easter eggs celebrates rebirth through rededication of faith.

While we are certainly aware of the stark religious differences between Jews and Christians that Easter crystallizes, perhaps this year when we sit down to our Seder on Good Friday, maybe even as an interfaith family, we might focus as well on the commonalities that transcend those distinctions. We all cherish freedom, we all love God and, especially this year, we all revere spring.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 2, 2015.

New Haggadah is A Feast for the Senses

We Erica Brown fans are in for a special treat this Passover. The gifted columnist has penned “Seder Talk” with her usual flair for combining the sensitive, scholarly and practical. The result is a Haggada with a fresh approach that is as imaginative as it is traditional, as educational as it is emotional; in short, it is a book with something for everyone.

Brown’s book is really two books bound as one. “Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada” is a commentary on the Haggada text that opens as a Hebrew text, from right to left. Chockful of poetry, songs and rabbinic readings, this Haggada also explains the meaning of the various seder rituals in a simple, informal style. The most engaging and distinctive, however, are the conversational cues interspersed throughout the text that, in signature Brown style, provide moments and roadmaps for celebrants to pause, reflect and share aloud. This is the stuff memorable seders are made of. There are also more personal life-homework exercises that promote greater mindfulness, intention and inner freedom.

The second book-within-abook, which opens from the other cover, contains eight essays, one for each of the eight days of Passover. Only Brown would think to start her first essay, “All Who Are Hungry,” with this perfect seder icebreaker, a quote from Oscar Wilde: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” Other essays are titled, “The Four Sons, the Right Question,” “Slave Wealth” and “Pour Out Your Wrath, Pour Out Your Love.”

Brown is a deep Judaic thinker and a respected author and educator. She has created a delightful new Haggada that belongs on the bedside reading pile, long after Passover has passed.

Pictured at top: Seder Talk The Conversational Haggada by Erica Brown. Maggid Books and OU Press, 2015

Don’t Pass Over‘The Whipping Man’

The finest theater experience makes us think, feel and debate. We gain some new insights into ourselves and others, and maybe learn a new fact or two. Such a trifecta is rarely attained, and when it is, we should notice with our feet. Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” currently in its Boston premiere run at the New Rep Theatre in Watertown, is just such a play. In a nutshell, the 2006 Obie Award-winning period drama is set in Richmond, Virginia during the crucial month of April 1865, as three historical events intersected: the end of the Civil War and American institutionalized slavery; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and Passover, which began the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

The setting is the half destroyed mansion of the Jewish DeLeon family. The characters include Caleb DeLeon, the injured Confederate soldier who has returned to the family home, and Simon and John, two newly freed DeLeon slaves, who had been converted to Judaism and raised as Jews by Caleb’s father.

Over the course of two days, the three address and try to make sense of their pasts as they reconstruct their futures against the backdrop of a suddenly reordered world. They revisit bitter traumas, reveal devastating secrets and warily navigate the waters of “freedom.” The play closes as the three conduct a makeshift seder, insisted upon and led by Simon.

“This year we are slaves, next year we may be free,” Simon recites before singing a few verses of “Go Down, Moses.” The stirring weight of the African American spiritual that celebrates the same hopes and dreams shared by the Israelites as they commemorate deliverance from Egyptian bondage is otherworldly in its force, emotion and layers of meaning.

As Simon, Johnny Lee Davenport brings a decency, self-confidence and self-knowledge to the play’s pivotal character. He embodies the shuffling, obedient slave of just yesterday, while evidencing the emerging freeman, at the helm of his future. Keith Mascoll’s John is spry and cocky, with impeccable timing and delivery. His is Simon’s perfect foil.

For a Jew, the complex messages of “The Whipping Man” are sobering. How do we face our collective hypocrisy that, after suffering the evils of slavery, we became slave owners? How do we bear our collective shame and guilt that we converted slaves to Judaism, but did not treat them as fellow human beings? What are the roles and responsibilities of legacy, trust, family and faith? We can almost channel the discomfort of many southern Jewish families as they sat down to the seder meal in 1865, a dank cloud of irony hovering unwelcome over the table.

To its great credit, the New Rep recognized the challenge posed by this complicated play, and invited the public to a free symposium of Jewish and African American scholars who discussed its meanings prior to the opening of the show. Perhaps the most insightful comment was by Professor Hillel Levine, an expert in historical conciliation, who interpreted “The Whipping Man” as a commentary on lost opportunities during Reconstruction.

“Maybe if Abraham Lincoln had had seders all over the country, things would have been different. Maybe it’s not too late,” Levine pondered.

“The Whipping Man” is the perfect antidote to this winter’s arctic freeze. Go with friends, maybe even read the play, and then settle in for scintillating discussion. The hot topics are sure to warm heart, mind and soul.

Pictured above from left: Jesse Hinson (Caleb), Johnny Lee Davenport (Simon) and Keith Mascoll (John) participate in a Passover seder in “The Whipping Man.”
Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures