Pesach - "Let My People Stay" et al.

(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

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!

The First Meal

Ah, the first meal. I remember it like yesterday... in the first meeting, we had decided upon making a Shabbat meal as a means to share a meaningful Jewish experience with friends who were never privy to its beauty. I asked if anyone had people in mind to invite and one girl blurted out that practically her entire dorm hall was Jewish but not religious. And just like that, before anyone else could add any suggestions of their own, we had finalized the invite list for the meal. For funding, I had been directed to an organization called "Project Shabbat" which pretty much gives money to religious kids on college campuses to make Shabbat meals for students who don't normally 'do' Shabbat - perfect! A few emails and phone calls later, we had the promise of monetary reimbursement for the meal. Later that week, I sent out an email to everyone I had spoken to, asking for volunteers to help cook for the meal. Due in no small part to the amazing people I am privileged to know at Penn, we soon had a whole meal signed up to be cooked. The next few weeks were filled with anxiety - when would the meal be (Friday, February 22nd @8pm), who's coming (we finally finalized on 5 Shabbat-observant students to come - enough to lead the meal and discussions at the meal, but not too many that it overwhelms the non-Shabbat observers; we then had to make sure all the invited people were actually coming), where the meal was going to be (we decided on one of the lounges in the Quad - local for the mostly-freshman guest list), etc. And then it was Friday afternoon, the food was cooked and I left for kabbalat Shabbat with my heart beating fast. I remember it being a very inspiring kabbalat Shabbat, and with people around me giving me wishes of good luck and godspeed, I was encouraged, but all the more nervous. After davening, I ran back to my room with a friend who was also helping make the meal to retrieve the food. On the way to my room, we saw a mutual friend of ours on his way towards Hillel. We had both met him when he began coming to Hillel a few times, but not being part of any religious or social groups, we were two of the few people who he knew there. Knowing that, and sensing his fear of going there alone and missing out on what we were up to, we invited him along. After packing up the food in suitcases, we quickly brought it over to the Quad, where the meal was scheduled. By the entranceway to the Quad, I saw someone else who I recognized from the few times I had met him at Hillel. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was waiting for his laundry. "Wanna come to a Shabbat meal?", I asked him. "Where is it?", he responded, seemingly not so interested in going out of his way somewhere. "It's right here in the Quad, in the Goldberg lounge", I answered. "Woah! That's right where I live! Really? A Shabbat meal in the Quad? Yeah, I'm coming!" - and just like that we picked up another guest. And then we were there, the table was set, the food was laid out and 15 of us were sitting around the Shabbat table.

It's hard to go into every detail of the meal (how we explained things, what conversations were had, etc.) but the details were key, and they worked out very well. Just to highlight a few, we borrowed a sparkling silver cup for Kiddush, adding to the exquisite grandeur of the experience (thanks Binyamin - I told you it would be worth it) and we intermingled the observant and non-observant students to promote interaction and discussions. It was an interesting bunch - 5 observant students, 1 non-Jewish missionary, a few totally unaffiliated students and the remainder were students who grew up going to Jewish schools but never really got into Judaism in college. Because of this, singing the songs of Shalom Aleichem and Kiddush were great, as most people could sing along, even if they hadn't done so in quite a while. We went through the different ceremonies of the meal along with very brief explanations and then we got to the food, over which the table broke into smaller group discussions. Most of the people stayed for a good two hours and before leaving, told us that they had a great time and would love to do it again. We could tell that it was a great experience for these people - they enjoyed it, they got to meet other Jewish students over the timeless Jewish meeting place of Shabbat, and they got to reconnect to a bit of what they might've missed and reminisced from home.

What was even more remarkable was that three students stayed behind for close to 4 hours - they wanted to sing z'mirot, and talk more about Judaism on campus, and get involved in social and educational programming and just talk more. I mean, who stays at Shabbat dinners for 4 hours?! One of those students (who I had never seen/met before) told her story: she had grown up kinduv-Conservative and Shabbat was something her family would do. So when she came to college as a freshman, the first Friday night she showed up at Hillel to try Shabbat. And she hated it - there were too many people, it was too unfriendly, too religious, no one said hello to her, she got turned off and she never came back. Until tonight, when her hallmate invited her to this meal and here she was. She said she couldn't believe how beautiful Shabbat could be, and with other students, at college; she wanted to do this next week, every week, and invite all her friends. We told her that we couldn't do this every week but that if she came to Hillel next Friday night, we'd be there and introduce her to our friends. She agreed, and she came back the next week, and met a whole bunch of nice, friendly people (they do exist, it's just sometimes hard for people to find them). Since then, this girl has gone on a journey of reconnecting to Judaism that is largely between her and God, helped in part by support of the wonderful people who make up the Jewish community at Penn. She is now a fully observant and highly religious and active member of the Orthodox Community at Penn, and it is my great honor to count her among my friends. I'm not saying that this one meal was the the magical key that changed her life, but I think it's clear as to the role it played in the greater process.

Another one of the students who stayed behind was the one who we dragged along when we saw him walking to Hillel. Since that meal, he also started coming to Hillel more and becoming more involved in Jewish activities. The first Shabbat of the following year, he saw me at Shabbat dinner at Hillel and we started talking. He told me that the previous year as a freshman, he didn't come to Hillel in the very beginning (maybe due to discomfort, or needing time to find his place, or who knows what), which he afterward realized put him at a disadvantage in terms of being part of different groups or communities. He felt, rightfully so, that everyone there knew each other and that people divided up into their little cliques, leaving someone like him alone on the outside. But, he said, you and a few other people (not coincidentally, members of the then-unofficial 'Heart to Heart') would always come over to me when I was sitting alone at Hillel and talk to me, sit with me, and make me feel like I mattered. "You don't know what that did to me, and how that affected me", he said. "And that Shabbat meal last year in the Quad - that was the best Shabbat of my life. All of that has really inspired me to come here more, become more knowledgeable about and more familiar with Judaism - so that I can be to others what you were to me." He then started coming every Friday night after that to make kiddush with me and sing z'mirot (he is a wonderful singer and a member of one of Penn's prestigious singing-and-acting groups) and he loved learning and singing new z'mirot. He told me his goal for the year was to learn how to bentch, like his grandfather used to do, so after dinner one Friday night, we sat for an hour going through all of bentching, culminating in singing "Na'ar Hayiti" - a family tradition of mine that he loved.

And all this just because one Sunday evening some students decided to make a Shabbat meal, and on one Friday night 5 religious students shared the beauty of Shabbat with some new friends.

I can't even make this stuff up. But I can, and have, made it happen again. And so can you. I've been writing up a guide to Shabbat dinners like these, based on a year-and-a-half of experience and over a dozen similarly styled Shabbat dinners - check it out here. Feel free to use whatever you want from it, and to add to it (that's why it's a wiki) - obviously not everything I say will work for you but some of it might be useful. But more importantly, sit down with a bunch of similarly thinking friends and think how you can translate this into your setting. It starts with that, and God only knows where it will go from there.