All Who Are in Need

Passover is a holiday of remembrance, a time to recall and
retell the story of the deliverance of the Jewish people from generations of
Egyptian bondage. But there is also a different kind of remembering that takes
place each Passover, in which memory is personal, not scripted. We
spontaneously recall, often vividly, the many different seders we have attended
over the years, both as a child and as an adult.Â

My own memories begin in the early 1960s, when our family
went to a seder or ritual Passover meal each year held at the Chicago home of
my Aunt Fella and Uncle Morris. Almost every adult in attendance was from Eastern
Europe; boredom among the children was rampant. My cousins and I would
inevitably end up crawling under the table for a mischievous rendezvous, a
distraction from the relentless Yiddish-accented recitation of “The Maxwell
House Haggadah.” (Literally translated as the telling, the haggadah recalls the
Israelite Exodus from Egypt and indicates the rituals performed at the seder.)
Eventually, our impatience was rewarded by my aunt’s amazing Passover
delicacies. I don’t ever recall understanding what was going on, but I still
looked forward to going. It was comforting and predictable — the same relatives
came each year and the same food appeared on the table.Â

Because the seders I attended growing up always had the same
cast of characters, it was an exciting break from routine when someone
unfamiliar showed up. One year my older cousin brought a boyfriend, and it
noticeably changed the seder dynamic. When I went away to college, it was my
turn to become the unfamiliar face when I attended my first seder with a family
other than my own. It was then that I really started to appreciate what a
mitzvah it was to extend invitations to strangers, especially those unable to
spend the holiday with family. Since then, I’ve been a guest at many different
seders. It is still a comforting ritual for me, even though the faces are new,
the accents American and the dishes different. But it is never a predictable
experience. While the haggadah is always the road map, each new seder takes
different side roads on which I never traveled.Â

It was a marvel the first time I attended a seder conducted
by Jewish educators.Â

While the seder was lengthy, everything was discussed,
explained and analyzed. I acquired many new insights and went home fervently
wishing that such an innovation had been introduced to my Chicago relatives.Â

Another seder, early in my career as a “Seder Stranger,”
caught me by surprise.Â

Still fully in possession of childhood naiveté, I was taken
aback when I encountered non-Jews at the table, friends of the host family.
Their questions reminded one of the simple child of the haggadah, and it turned
out to be a lovely experience to see the ritual through their eyes.Â

One year, my seder experience was a disappointment. I call
this one seder-lite.Â

It was a perfunctory matzah and wine tasting accompanied by
a riffling of the haggadah pages that figuratively stirred a cool breeze, but
didn’t warm my heart.Â

In a subsequent year, I was delighted and entertained at a
seder orchestrated especially for children, with wind-up frogs and finger puppets.Â

Perhaps the most memorable seder I attended is the one I
call, both wryly and fondly, the last supper. It was led in Manhattan by Rabbi
Shlomo Carlebach at his Upper West Side shul. Seventy of us from all over the
country listened to stories and sang wordless chants until 3 a.m. When I
finally left, the seder still had a few hours to go. Reb Shlomo died the
following fall. This seder turned out to be the last one he led.Â

Drawing from my own enriching experiences, I am now an
enthusiastic advocate of inviting strangers to one’s seder.Â

Many families do this routinely, reaching out to welcome
various categories of Jews as well as non-Jews.

Naomi Osher of Newton, Mass., recalls her parents having
20-30 people each year at their Cincinnati home, a number of them Christians.
Her parents’ born-again housekeeper always looks forward to the tzimmes, a
sweet carrot dish.   Â

Fred Kahn of Buffalo Grove, Ill., remembers the time, when
he was a boy, that his mother called the Hillel at Northwestern University to
see if any students wanted to come to seder. On the night of the seder, seven
students from the dental school showed up at the door, causing the family to
scramble for seats and plates.

Rabbi Sheldon Ever and his wife, Reva, before immigrating to
Jerusalem, made sure each year to invite local widows and widowers who had
nowhere to go, drawing from the large elderly population of their Miami Beach
neighborhood. On occasion, attendance at their seders was as high as 40.Â

Having strangers at the seder can generate some comical
moments, especially when the guests aren’t Jewish. Mary (not her real name),
grew up in Detroit, attended Catholic schools as a child and never learned anything
about Judaism. As an adult, she befriended a man whose father was a cantor, and
the family invited her to their Passover seder. She was very excited at
attending her first Jewish event, and wanted to bring a very special gift. So
she looked hard to find the one item that she knew symbolized Judaism. She
still turns purple every time she describes the look on the faces of her host
and hostess when she presented them with a challah.Â

Both guests and hosts benefit when strangers are invited.
Individuals who are single, widowed, away from home, newly converted or unable
to conduct their own seder are deeply grateful for an invitation. Unaffiliated
Jews strengthen their connection to Judaism, and those experienced at seder
participation pick up new insights and ideas for future seders. Guests who
aren’t Jewish often find the experience fascinating, although it is probably a
good idea to prepare them in advance for the unfamiliar ritual aspects of the

Hosts gain in a variety of ways. Jewish affiliations for
young children are reinforced when they see strangers sing the same songs and
perform the same rituals as their parents. Family tensions can be eased when
strangers are present, as difficult relatives are more likely to be on their
best behavior. Â

Strangers contribute new songs, melodies, stories and
interpretations, help out in the kitchen and entertain the kids.Â

Their questions can bring out new understandings and make
the experience continually meaningful. New friendships and connections often

If you are inspired to invite one stranger or many, here are
some people and places you might call to find guests:Â

Your rabbi, synagogue office or a synagogue located in a
neighborhood that is no longer predominantly Jewish, where remaining members
are likely to be elderly;Â

An assisted-living center or geriatric home;

The Hillel or Chabad House at your local college or

Chaplains at local hospitals or military bases;Â

Jewish community centers;

Food pantries, social service organizations and
immigration organizations;

Reform or Conservative organizations that conduct classes
for converts;

Organizations that provide interest-free loans or tzedakah
to the Jewish community.Â

Remember, by opening your home to others on Passover, you
fulfill the appeal of the hagaddah liturgy: “Let all who are hungry, come and
eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Passover meal.”Â

Reprinted from, a service of Jewish Family
Life! Â

Mark I. Rosen is the is the author of “Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People” (Harmony Books, 1998).