I ended up staying in school for the whole chag - I had seen my parents the week before, my siblings were coming to visit me for Shabbat, and it would my last chag at Penn as a student - how could I leave!! People asked me "Hart, are you really staying at Penn for all of Pesach??" You would think that I was being enslaved in Egypt, that's how averse people were to the idea. No, I wanted to stay, and it ended up being incredible (of course), including some of the most amazing tisches of my time in Penn - one tisch in 403 in the dark with 50 people sitting on the floor, 1/2 OCP, 1/4 CJC, and 1/4 Kesher or unaffiliated; another one with 35 people outside on the grass, until it got broken up by the cops at 1am. And they were really good tisches - amazing singing, wonderful people, beautiful words of Torah, and some delectable kosher-for-Passover treats from my grandparents (thanks B&G!). Probably because there was a small Orthodox crowd, we all got to bond with each other, as well as to meet new people and include them into our community; I probably met over 50 new people over Pesach - and that's just me! In retrospect, what was also amazing was that we did all that (Seders, tisches, shiurim, and ran an amazing community for a week) without the JLIC rabbi and rebbetzin being here. There's something nice about having a rabbi run things, but there's something downright inspiring about running a community yourselves. And you get to do it exactly how you want, down to the tisches, the table arrangements, and the Seders. In some ways, we got a taste of what it's like to go to a college with a small religious community. For all the struggles and challenges it presents, it also affords a lot of amazing opportunities, both within the Orthodox community and in impacting the wider Jewish population. In fact, when Pesach ended and the masses came back, a few students shared with me their frustration and disappointment that we'd have to go back to the old ways. Don't get me wrong - there's something amazing about having such a big and vibrant religious community, but believe it or not, there are times when I'm jealous of those colleges with small communities and no rabbi. (Probably only until I have to be in that community full-time.) Regardless, those 8 days at Penn were some of the most freeing and uplifting as any, and definitely a good way to end my Penn career. Until I come back next year, of course ;)
Besides for the Seders, one of the best aspects of Passover is the eating "kosher for Passover". "What?!", you're probably asking me, "Isn't that the most annoying part?" Well, what I love most is how everyone does it - Jews who don't keep kosher or rarely identify as Jewish will be adamant about keeping "kosher for Passover". I once had someone ask me if his turkey and cheese salad was "kosher for passover" - I guess they're different laws and as long as there's no leaven in there, he was doing alright. I'm not sure why, but it's great! At Penn, people come out of the woodworks to eat at Hillel on Pesach; I saw some people who I hadn't seen since last Pesach, and some people who I had never seen. Many of the people who I met for the first time at the Seder came back to Hillel over the next few days and we've made sure to say 'hello' to them and reconnect with them. One of the best practices we tried instituting was in arranging our seating: Over yom tov, those who were at shacharit would come down to eat after prayers and we were often the first and only ones there. Normally, we would fill 2 or 3 tables ourselves - partially out of convenience and partially out of design. Because invariably, half an hour later, random people would start trickling in to eat lunch, likely in between classes or perhaps just getting out of bed. We would be sitting in our nice, yom tov-clothes and trying to have a nice yom tov-meal, and in would come these random kids - who probably didn't know what yom tov was, who just wanted to eat "kosher for passover". And so we'd end up sitting at our tables, they'd end up sitting at their tables (or by themselves) and never the twain shall meet.
I had an idea. Instead of all sitting together and filling up our tables, what if we spread out and filled 5 or 6 tables halfway, leaving half the table empty. When the other students would come in, either they'd join on their own or we could invite them to sit with us. And that's what we did - and people were usually overjoyed to sit with us, talk with us, and to celebrate Pesach with us. They were also then able to hear kiddush with us, which is a much better and more organic method than getting up on a chair to make kiddush for everyone in the room (which some people tried doing). By making one little change, I and others were able to make so many new friends and helped make the environment a little more welcoming and friendly for everyone.
If you don't call that a success, I'm not sure what is :)People already told me they told their parents they're staying again at Penn to lead Seders next year :) Hopefully we'll all be in Jerusalem but if not, I know where I'll be.
(parts I, II, III)I just want to sum up some final thoughts on the whole Pesach experience. First I'll post a survey Hillel put out to ~120 students who came to Hillel for Seders. Most of those polled do not regularly eat at Hillel, and over 80% did not go to other activities (services, programs) at Hillel, which is an indication they were not Hillel regulars. Of those polled, around 25% had gone to one of our student-led Seders. The polling options were: strongly agree, agree, somewhat agree, disagree, strongly disagree.
I really enjoyed the student lead seder:Freshmen/Sophomore: strongly agree - 75%; agree 25%Jr/Sr: strongly agree - 64.3%; agree - 21.4%; somewhat agree - 7.1%; strongly disagree 7.1%
I felt welcome at the student lead seder:F/S: strongly agree - 100% (!!)J/S: strongly agree - 85.7%; agree - 14.3%
The leader of the student lead seder was well prepared:F/S: strongly agree - 75%; agree - 16.7%; somewhat agree - 8.3%J/S: strongly agree - 57.1%; agree - 42.9%
I learned new things at the student lead seder:F/S: strongly agree - 58.3%; agree - 33.3%; somewhat agree - 8.3%J/S: strongly agree - 71.4%; agree - 7.1%; somewhat agree - 14.3%; disagree 7.1%
I met new people at the student lead seder:F/S: strongly agree - 66.7%: agree - 25%; disagree - 8.3%J/S: strongly agree - 78.6%; somewhat agree - 14.3%; strongly disagree - 7.1%
We didn't really need these results to prove anything to ourselves; these results just confirmed to the Hillel staff what we already knew. They were very impressed, especially considering that they were worried at the onset whether we'd know how to talk to unaffiliated students (please, I talk to unaffiliated students for breakfast!). And to all our (theoretical) discreditors who said it couldn't be done, we did it! We led Seders that were meaningful, traditional, welcoming, engaging. And a lot of mitzvahs were done too! Just some students sharing a good ol' Jewish experience with other Jewish students...
Another important thing that came out of this experience was the message it showed to the community. We showed that as religious Jews, caring for other Jews and caring about their Judaism is something that we value and that we attempt to address. And not just when it's convenient and self-serving, but even when it takes sacrifices and hard work and time and effort. My brother told a very touching dvar Torah at my family's Seder - he talked about how the Chasidim speak of not 4 sons, but 5 sons, with the 5th son being the one who doesn't even come to the Seder. Hart, he said, is at Penn leading Seders for all those 5th sons. I thought that was the most beautiful thing ever, and it showed how some people really understood this. We tried to talk this up a lot, at Pen and beyond, so that other people would see the importance and might be encouraged/inspired to attempt similar endeavors in the future. In fact, a few people at Penn told me that they were definitely going to join us next year. One student who went home told me that he told his parents "Mom, Dad - I love you and I love Seders at home but here's what Hart is doing at Penn this year and next year I'm going to join him". Towards this end, we had the idea of making shirts which we could wear around Penn - the shirts would say "Let My People Stay - Pesach@Penn '09". Besides for being mekayem the rule that when 10+ Jews are together for 2+ days there is a chiyuv to make a shirt/sweatshirt, it would also be a great way of publicizing and spreading the message of which we all were a part of. (Sponsorship opportunities are still available - email firstname.lastname@example.org
for more info.)
Now, as good as the Seders were, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the rest of the chag. First of all, we got to lead all of davening (I think I led shacharit, hallel, musaf, layned, read Shir haShirim [my favorite], and gave a dvar Torah) - which was kinduv fun. We also got to be gabbis, run bikkur cholim, give shiurs, lead Shabbat kiddush at Hillel, and host the tisch. But by far the best was all the meals at Hillel. While normally there are all these Orthodox kids overwhelming the place, over the three-day yomtov it was just the 14 of us, and dozens of newcomers - people who only come to Hillel's kosher dining hall 7 days a year - on Passover! So every meal I got to sit with a few new people, either by joining their table, or inviting them to mine, or speaking to them in line, or complaining with them about the monotonous food choices. By the end I probably knew almost every person sitting down for meals and I had made over 30 new Facebook friends! And because many of the same people would keep coming back and because we were always there, I really got to bond with a lot of these people over the course of many meals. It was really so much fun, and it gave me a taste of what it'd be like to be in a small Jewish community. It was also really depressing when the mass of Orthodox kids came back after yomtov and took over the dining hall again (just kidding guys ;) ).
Oh, and the tisch! So Friday night we figured we'd add to the load of fun we were having and have a tisch. My grandparents had sent me a package with kosher-for-Passover snacks (as a token of their thinking of me and missing me at their Seder - thanks B&G!) and here was a perfect chance to break those out. We were finishing dinner in Hillel when we had decided to have the tisch and so we figured we'd invite some of the people who were around. Normally these tisches attract only Orthodox kids, and only a certain type of them, but here was a great opportunity to invite some people from a wider crowd and we weren't about to miss it. Sure enough, a whole group of Conservative students came, brought along by a mutual friend :) And what a tisch it was - we went through some of the songs from the Haggadah, some classic Israeli songs, some typical tisch songs, all of kabbalat Shabbat (since we didn't sing it at ma'ariv) and more. By the end we were singing some Beatles, but I think that was all of the Kedem wine kicking in. But it was so beautiful - people who otherwise might have never shared in such an experience found out that they knew and loved many of the same songs, and that it's so much more beautiful when you sing them together. We also got to make new friends, and they were so grateful for us hosting them in our room - a win-win situation for all of us, and for the Jewish people.
Okay fine, by the end of the 3 days we were a little sick of each other and of the food, but it was an experience I wouldn't give up for the world. For us, for the multitudes of people that we reached, and for the entire community, this was an unforgettable Pesach. Next year we should really all be in ירושלים, but if not, I know where I'll be.
You're all welcome to join, at Penn or at your own college/community. Towards that end, we'll be posting resources, ideas, tips on what worked/didn't work on this site. It's empty now but you can check back closer to Pesach - or you can start adding to it!
After the overwhelming success of the first Seder, how could things get any better? Wait 'til you hear this story... So the second Seder - we planned it a little different based on the number of people expected to attend, which was much smaller than the previous night's hundreds. Furthermore, for the 14 of us, it took a lot of preparation and effort to get through that first Seder, something we weren't sure we'd be up to in the same capacity the next night. So we decided that we would do one joint Seder, with the 14 of us and whoever else wanted to join. It would be a no-nonsense Seder, where each of us could share what we wanted to without having to worry about people who didn't know what Passover was, etc. And sure enough, by the time we sat down to start, there were over 40 people there. Many were returnees from our Seders the previous night, some were people who had been home the first night, and maybe some were those who heard the rave reviews and had to check it out for themselves (just kidding :)). We arranged a few tables together so that we had all 40+ of us around one big rectangular table, with the different leader scattered around the table. Somehow I was chosen to lead the leaders, and thus we began.
Though bigger than we had expected, the Seder went at a very enjoyable pace, with some interesting forays into the philosophical facts of the Seder and some interesting point which were left unanswered the night before. It was also good because different people got to add their highlights from the previous night's Seder, making this somewhat of a "best of" Seder. It was going great - people were getting into it, great conversations were being had, and we were on a roll.
Suddenly, in the middle of magid - one woman stormed up, ran to the wall and tore off a picture. (Backdrop - in an attempt to lend some creativity and color to their Seder, one of the groups had put up pictures of different people/things around the room. The plan was that for the '4 sons', people would stand next to whichever picture they thought represented a particular son [e.g. WalMart could be the wicked son for stealing small businesses' business]). So it turns out there was one picture up of Che Guevara. And this woman's family, 10 of whom were sitting at our Seder (including grandmother, parents, married kid and husband, teenage girl and boyfriend), had escaped from Cuba. She grabbed the picture, stormed back to the table and started yelling: "Do you know who this is? Do you think you know who this man is?" Dead silence. Except for some feeble attempts to explain why the picture was there, which were quickly quashed by her yelling. "Do you think this is funny?", she continued, presumably mistaking one girl's rushing out of the room in tears for laughter. "This is disgusting, that you dare put up this picture at your Seder. Oh, you think you're so cool with your freedom and your Seder - but you don't even know who this is. How would you like if I put a picture of Hitler at your Seder? Well, this man is our Hitler." Then the grandmother got up and began her tirade - quieter, and in her Spanish accent, but so much more powerful: "My husband was in jail for thuurty years because of this man. You don't know what he did to us, and how much we suffered." They went on for a good 5-10 minutes, and we were just sitting there in shock for what seemed like an eternity, with no idea how to proceed.
Then I had an idea - in one of the dead silences, I started speaking: "You know, the Passover Seder is such a hard thing for so many of us - here's this story that happened thousands of years ago to our ancestors and we're supposed to retell it. But how are we supposed to connect to it, and relive something which transpired so long ago? It's a very difficult process. We're fortunate to have here with us people who went through their own story of slavery, who went on their personal journey from slavery to freedom, almost in our lifetimes, and before their very own eyes. My grandmother is from Colombia (of course I said it with the South American accent) and they also went through kidnappings and hardships to get here, so I know what that is like. It's a sad thing but it's also an amazing opportunity for us here - maybe you could share more of your story, and what it was like to go through your Exodus from slavery to freedom and through that you can help all of us better relive and understand what Pesach is all about." They loved it - "Yes, that's exactly what it was like! This one time...". And they went on for a few more minutes going through some stories, with Che as Pharaoh and their grandfather as the Moses who escaped death and led a family to freedom. And just like that, things were back to normal and the Seder proceeded, only this time at least some people were feeling it a little more deeply.
What was it that calmed them down? How did we "save the Seder" (according to the married daughter, who afterward thanked me for dealing with her difficult family - and suggested I go into politics)? By making it real, by connecting it to people's real lives - because that is what people connect to. It also was no longer about us versus them, but it was about all of us sharing in this experience, and empowering them to be able to share with us their wealth of relevant meaning. And it wasn't just about their story, it was also about my family's story, and the story of the Jewish people thousands of years ago, being re-experienced anew ("b'chol dor vador..."). I can truthfully say that between these people and the African American convert from the night before, I was never at Seders which better fulfilled the goal of " "l'harot et atzmo ke'ili hu yatza mimitzrayim".
Last we saw our team of heroes they were hard at work preparing sessions, delving into the depths of the haggadah, and working on their discussion-leading skills. And then the day was here - the 14th of Nisan. So while the rest of the Jewish community piled out, we dug in and prepared ourselves. We got some last minute much-needed shmurah matza (thanks Ambroses!), invited some last people to the Facebook event we had made, made some photocopies of pictures and banners, and as the evening began to creep in, we made out way to Hillel where we would be running our Seders. The way we arranged it was for the 5 groups to each have a separate room on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Hillel where we would have our Seders. We then had two greeters at the front door - so that when the swarms of hundreds of students and community members walked through the doors we could direct them either to the 'big, communal, (boring) Seder straight ahead - or to the small, student-led Seders upstairs'. (In retrospect, one problem was that some students thought that meant they would have to lead the Seders!) And given those options, people did chose to come to our Seders - our 5 Seders filled up at around 20 people each! But it did take a while for people to trickle in, which was good considering that we had to wait a while, as Hillel called the Seders for an hour before tzeis (which is the earliest halachikly possible time). We ended up sitting around our tables, starting conversations, meeting each other, and giving people a chance to skim through the haggadahs (they were a big hit!) - not bad ways to kill time at all!
[From here on in, I will restrict myself to speaking about the Seder I participated in, as my engrossment therein led me to miss out on what was happening at the other Seders.] And so we started. Lu, JHS and I who were leading the Seder divided ourselves among the crowd - and what a crowd we had! By my count there was one African-American convert, two non-Jews (one of whom knew Hebrew better than most people at the table), one girl who had recently found out that she's Jewish (yes, the one from the previous blog post - she's come a long way since then), a freshman friend from my Jewish History class (maybe I'll talk about that class another time), three other freshmen guys, a middle-aged gentlemen from Allentown, and a few more people for a total of 15. There was one first-timer, two second-timers, a bunch for whom this was their first time in Hillel, and most of the remainder for whom this would be their first Seder longer than half-an-hour. We had our task cut out for us.
And it was great. We started going though the Seder, explaining what each step was, throwing in some interesting tidbits for discussion and an occasional classic song. We had each (Lu, JHS, and myself) prepared different things to talk about and so we each led discussions at different parts of the Seder - such as poverty in the world (halves and have-nots) and the social and historical background of the Seder ceremony (the Greco-Roman symposium). We also had a few ice-beakers in the beginning, just going around the room and people introducing themselves and their personal Seder history. What I thought really broke the floodgates open was at Mah Nishtana - we did this activity where we had to go around having a conversation using only questions ('How are you?' 'Are you talking to me?' 'Didn't you hear me the first time?' etc.). The point was to illustrate the power of questions, but what it also did was add some levity to the table, as people fumbled for questions and we all laughed at each other. From that point in, things just kept getting better and we started really bonding as a group. At one point we asked people what made them feel free, and one girl said that she left her blackberry at home so she could feel free of its mental burden. If that's not the closest definition to freedom in today's modern society, I don't know what it! When we talked about connecting to the past through retelling, our resident African-American answered someone's doubts on that method by sharing how his family passed down its story of slavery in the not-so-distant past, and how that made it real for him. It was perfect! And without even a glance at a clock, we went on, reading through the stories, pointing out interesting or funny pictures, and different people sharing their thoughts. For the most part it was the three of us leading the discussions, as is wont to happen, but there were definitely many parts where other people jumped in to participate. Then, before we knew it, it was time for the meal and we spent a good chunk of time just eating our fill, talking, decompressing. I was so nice just to be able to talk to each other, share family stories, and hear people's stories of why they never came to Hillel before, or what their previous misconceptions were. We then had a suspenseful hunt for the afikomen (the Hebrew-speaking Indian found it, and won a plastic piggy-bank!), and someone came in dressed up as Eliyahu Hanavi. It was funny, but most of our previous fears (e.g. How would we explain "sh'foch chamotcha"? What if people didn't want to eat the marror?) were never even issues - things just went smoothly and easily. It seemed like people just wanted to keep going. We then finished off the final two cups of wine (getting through four cups of Kedem wine was also a great social lubricant :) ) and people still wanted to sing some more songs. So we went through "Go Down Moses", "Who knows one?", and we acted out "Chad Gadya".
By now the effects of the wine were starting to kick in, and it was time to go. That's when I looked at the clock and saw that nearly 5 hours had passed since we first sat down at the table! 5 hours! And the only person who left early was the guy from Allentown - but only because he had to catch his train back home. The only time complaints we got were from the dining staff who wanted to serve us our food when we were still discussing, and from students who said they wished we'd gone even slower. Even slower than 4+ hours?! Weirdos... Even after we cleared the table and were winding down, a bunch of the people were still hanging around, remembering people's names, meeting people from the other Seders, coordinating when they would next come back to Hillel. From what I saw and heard from the other Seders, they were all just as successful, if not more so - there were great conversations being had, fantastic activities being carried out, and outlandish Pesach songs being sung. There were relationships being forged, Jewish identities taking shape, and a powerful commemoration of Pesach being celebrated. By the time we let the building that night, I felt like we had truly gone on quite a journey through the unique and memorable experience of the Passover Seder.
To skip a few days ahead, one of those students who had never come to Hillel (nor anything Jewish-related in college) began consistently coming to the Orthodox Community's weekly Sunday Night Learning, where he was paired up with a chavrutah. Another of those students came back for dinner the next week, and me being the only person he knew there, he sat with me, together with some of my other friends, whom I introduced to my new friend. And the guy from Allentown? I guess he had such a good time because he came back the second night for our Seder again (more on that here). Before he left the second Seder, he came up to me and thanked me for giving meaning to his holiday for the first time in his life. And all this just from our Seder; the other Seder groups have their own stories of people who hence started coming to SNL, or had Jewish-identity changing experiences. I'll post the full response survey later, but I think these personal stories mean just as much as some numbers on a chart.
Pesach. What a holiday. It's got everything - history, theology, family, customs, commandments, emotions - no wonder it's the most celebrated Jewish event (2001-2002 National Jewish Population Study). What normally happens at Penn is that all 300+ Orthodox and most of the other affiliated students go home (or to friends' homes). Then, Seder night, hundreds of people show up at Hillel, people for whom this might be their first time in the building all year - or ever. Normally they have one huge (=impersonal), communal (=boring) Seder, for all these hundreds of people, led by the Hillel rabbi. Now as good as he may be, it's hard to have a meaningful, personal, and impacting Seder when it's 1-on-300. When that Seder fills up, Hillel would turn people away, giving them a Seder-to-go kit and telling them to do it on their own -- even worse than the first option. Can you believe that?! People come to Hillel looking for a meaningful, fun, Jewish experience and they get turned off/away, and likely turned off from Judaism! Chabad also runs Seders, and also for a mass of people led by one rabbi (with some help from some imported Chabad bochurim). After I heard about the state of affairs at Penn for Pesach, I spoke to my parents: "Mommy, Tati-", I said, "I love you and I love Seders at home but this year I'm staying at Penn to lead Seders". And my wonderful and understanding parents lovingly gave their approval, saying that they'd miss me, but that they were proud of me. Then I began to speak to friends, people who cared, and/or people for whom going home wasn't a giving.
"...imagine if there were some small, intimate, explanatory, engaging Seders where these hundreds of people can find that fun and meaningful part of Judaism that they're searching for. Imagine if these people could be given a positive Jewish experience and maybe change their perspective on Judaism for the rest of their lives.
Imagine if you can be that difference. Who better to provide this experience for them then fellow students, who can share their knowledge, passion and familiarity for Judaism in a relevant and friendly way? Who can better relate to them as peers, and as conduits into Judaism and a Jewish community? And what is Pesach anyway, other than a means of of connecting Jews, to our shared history, to our heritage, and to each other!
I know this is a lot to ask and everyone wants to be home/somewhere comfortable. Great. But imagine the difference you can be making in someone's life who doesn't have that warm, loving place to go to. You can go home for spring break, for the last days, or for any other day - but on Pesach, the Jews of Penn need you to be here for them..."
By the end, and without much further convincing necessary, there were 13 of us who decided to stay and a friend from Stern who volunteered to come as well. (This isn't to say that anyone who didn't stay didn't care, but these 13 people did show extraordinary and true devotion.)
The next step was preparing, even more than 30 days in advance. We had quite a formidable task - learning how to run interesting and enjoyable Seders that were also genuine and halachik for people who didn't know what halacha was and who might never have been to a Seder before, or at least not one they enjoyed. To assist us, we organized sessions with the aforementioned Hillel and Chabad rabbis, experts in running similarly oriented Seders. The Conservative Hillel rabbi gave a wonderful session, highlighting important ideas to keep in mind, good points to bring up in discussion, and strategies for facilitating meaningful conversations. One thing, however, that didn't sit as well with me was when he said that in order to provide unaffiliated students with a meaningful experience, we'd have to (and I quote) "throw halacha out the window". In whatever sense it was meant, the point was clear - the priority should be to engage students in meaningful discussion; the Seder was but an expendable means. I have a suspicion that the Chabad rabbi heard about this, because in his session the next week, his main and only point was to forget about meaning and just get the students to do the mitzvahs, for therein lies the only meaning. Forget about discussions and philosophy - just get them to drink 4 revi'is of wine and eat a k'zayit of matzah. There was a lot that we gained from the sessions, but that contrasting and explicit dichotomy was the most striking. Could one really not run a Seder for unaffiliated college students that both adheres to its requirements and contains meaningful content? We were going to try and find out... (As an aside: I find it incredibly amazing at the gap between existing models of outreach: you either have right-wing, ultra-Orthodox kiruv organizations or non-Orthodox, pluralisitc, fluffy, organizations. How come there's no modern religious groups/people doing this kind of stuff, people who are deeply rooted in Torah, Judaism, and devotion to God and are also full participants in the modern society around them? These people have the unique opportunity (and responsibility) to be ambassadors of Judaism to the people around them.)
We almost worked with NJOP's PAA but in the end we decided to run it by ourselves. Well not all by ourselves; we got help from Hillel's CCP grants, which sponsored "A Night to Remember" Haggadahs. The reason we chose those was not just because they had the traditional text and transliterations for the essential parts, but because they had incredible pictures, cartoons, stories, essays, and other reading material for all ages and interests. As it turns out, the author, Mishael Zion, was coming to Penn to give a talk about the Seder, so he gave us a fantastic private session afterward on how to run Seders with his Haggadahs. After acquiring all of these tools, tidbits, and ideas, we divided up into 5 groups of 3 (except one of 2) and set about preparing the actual Seders. It was also at this point that the Kentucky Shabbaton occurred, as did many midterms and group projects, but even with a lack of time to spare, everyone put in a lot of time and effort to ensure that our Seders would be ready, remarkable, and rewarding.
More on the actual Seders soon...