Monday, April 11, 2011

Top tips for an engaging Seder

I've led or co-led several workshops or conversations with parents over this past week on ways of engaging children and adults alike in the Passover Seder experience.  The following is not a comprehensive list; rather, a sharing of some of the top tips that I have found excite parents and children when we introduce these possibilities to Seder night.  Keeping with the Passover format, here are 4 suggestions:

1) Involving children in the preparations.  Building the anticipation by having our children prepare some things for Seder night is key.  This can include more traditional tasks, like helping to make the charoset, and searching for the last pieces of chametz (bread, cake, etc.) that a parent has hidden on the last morning before Seder with a feather (bedikat chametz).  But it can also include preparing some acting of the story, songs, decorating pillow covers (thanks Rabbi Nicole Wilson-Spiro, who runs our Young Families Chavurah, for this one), matzah covers, place settings etc.  If you clean out your kitchen but don't empty every cupboard, have the kids design the 'Chametz - Keep Out!' and 'Kosher for Pesach' signs to put on the cupboard doors.

2) Logistics and lay-out.  This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial.  While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table.  Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too.  At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent.  In previous years, we've moved to tables in another room for the meal, but this year we'll be using our dining room table as the buffet table, and will continue the informal feel as we eat in this more informal setting too.

3) While some observe the tradition of reading from the beginning to the end of the Haggadah, I regard it as more of a teacher's manual.  There are steps - 15 of them to be precise, listed at the beginning of most haggadot, which make up the Seder - the order - of the service.  Most of these steps are short (washing hands, dipping karpas into salt water, breaking the matzah and hiding the afikoman, etc.)  The largest section is Maggid - telling the story.  In this section we find the debates and conversations of several generations of Rabbis recorded.  But for the story to come alive for us so that, as we are commanded, we experience the Exodus as if we ourselves left Egypt, we have to find our own way to tell and respond to the story.
- That might mean acting it out (have the children walk around the room with sacks over their shoulders while you sing; when the music stops, ask them a question: Who are you? Where are you going? What are you carrying? What will you eat? etc.).
- You might use songs to tell the story.
- You might have the children ask questions (not just recite the Ma Nishtanah, which are just your starters for 4, not meant to be the totality of questions for the whole night!)
- You might ask guests to bring their symbols of Freedom for a second Seder plate, to be shared during the course of the evening (thank you to Rabbi Phyllis Berman, from whom I learned this one).
- When it comes to the praises we sing to celebrate our freedom, you might get up and dance!  With fabric, you might 'split the sea' for people to pass through as they sing and celebrate.
- For an adult crowd, you might seek out challenging contemporary readings on themes of freedom to discuss around the table (see for an amazing selection of potential readings).

4) Finally, I really recommend doing some of the Seder after the meal.  Traditionally there is still the Grace after Meals, more praises, two cups of wine, and Elijah's cup to go, plus some closing songs.  I know that many families skip the post-meal Seder, but there is something powerful and pleasureable about taking even 15 minutes to offer thanks and close with some fun songs (the traditional ones like Chad Gad Ya, or some contemporary fun songs set to familiar tunes - see here, for example).

There are many more links, and some fun Passover youtube videos, as well as more information and recipes, at Congregation B'nai Israel's Passover Page.

Have some great ideas for the Passover Seder that you'd like to share with others?  Please add them to the comments section here!

Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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