PASSOVER – The Model Seder Begets Model Students

Lingering clouds huddle at the eastern edge of Los Angeles’ clear blue skyline, casting a dusty shadow over the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Follow one of those meandering white trails down the mountain, and you’ll find yourself at Weizmann Jewish Community Day School in the eastern foothills of Pasadena, where 38 students and 11 staff members occupy a stronghold of Jewish education in an area of Southern California not known for its overall Jewishness.

On this day, two weeks before Passover, it’s time for a model seder.

The time-honored ritual of the classroom model seder, which happens everywhere from Chasidic preschools to confirmation classes at Reform temples, makes the seder familiar and comfortable. And here as elsewhere, the school ritual gives students knowledge and expertise to take home.

Prior to the start of the event, excitement is brewing in the classroom off the garden courtyard, part of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a 400-family Conservative synagogue where the 23-year-old school is housed.

The 12 kids in the combined first and second grades are eager to get started, ready to recite the story of strangers in a strange land.

Restless feet in sneakers or party shoes swing under the table, while kids remind each other to be on their best behavior.

“Remember, there’s a reporter here!” they scream-whisper across the table.

“The model seder makes me feel good because Pesach is my favorite holiday,” begins Joette Labinger, who has been teaching at the school for 17 years.

Labinger has set the table with everything from flowers to saltwater, and the group begins with the blessing over the wine (grape juice in this case).

Before each child a paper plate is arranged with seder foods — a sprig of parsley, some celery sticks, a mound of charoset, a glob of red horseradish and a hard-boiled egg.

As some moms bring around a bowl and a pitcher of water to wash small hands, arms shoot up into the air to answer Labinger’s question about why Jews do karpas.

“For spring,” one child answers.

“We dip it in saltwater to think about the tears of the slaves,” another answers.

The kids have been learning about Pesach since the day after the Purim masks were stored away. There’s a lot of material to get through, and Labinger’s goal is to make the children feel comfortable at any seder, and to be able to follow in their own hagaddah.

As the participants dip into the karpas, some choose celery while others brave — and a few even profess to like — the parsley.

Some of today’s bounty was picked from the kids’ garden right outside the classroom, part of an integrated learning approach at Weizmann. When the third- and fourth-graders learned about California, for instance, they planted and harvested native plants, and sold them at the local farmer’s market, sending the proceeds to a local food bank, explains Lisa Feldman, the school’s principal.

Activities with a service and science bent are strong here, which seems to fit the proximity to JPL and Caltech, where many parents from the school work or are students. The service component, Feldman says, includes going next door monthly to visit a retirement home, and the school has an ongoing relationship with the Eaton Canyon Nature Center up the block.

Labinger teaches both Judaic and secular studies to her class. So for Passover, the kids practiced reading English and Hebrew in the hagaddah, and used math skills for all the counting and measuring the seder requires.

The work is paying off, as the kids proudly read in perfectly accented Hebrew, a product of their five hours a week of language immersion with a Hebrew specialist.

The students count off the plagues — and come up with 11. They get 10 on the second try.

After a rousing rendition of “Dayenu,” they are ready for matzah. They joyously crunch while suspiciously eying the gnarly horseradish root.

“Does it taste like ginger?” Sharon asks optimistically.

The kids all take a dab of the red horseradish, tempered by a dip into the sweet charoset, and after the requisite wrinkled noses and mock heaving, Sharon announces definitively that maror does not taste like ginger.

The charoset is a hit, and the kids are invited to eat whatever is on their seder plate before they start the afikomen hunt.

In a snap, Maia finds the unleavened loot hidden in the bookshelf. She later reveals that her older sister cut a deal: She would tell Maia where Mrs. Labinger usually hides the afikomen, if Maia promised to give her sister one of the two Bazooka bubblegums the winner always gets (everyone else gets one). As afikomen bartering goes, it seemed fair — and enterprising.

By the time the kids get to the blessing after the meal and the concluding songs, it looks like a real seder — the table is decorated in purple stains and matzah crumbs, and the kids are slap-happy on four cups of grape juice.

The bubble gum treat is still sitting in front of them, and the chorus that brings this seder to a close is nothing if not universal — “It is time for dessert yet?”