Photo courtesy of Four Season Resort and Residences Whistler

Where in the world are Jared and Ivanka for Passover? Canada


In a misdirection of sorts, Ivanka Trump posted the following photo on Monday of her family at the White House:

This post led to much of the media including The Jerusalem Post to conclude, “This year, Ivanka and Jared celebrated Passover at America’s first home, the White House, continuing a tradition first started in 2009 by former US president Barack Obama.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

However, Jewish Insider has learned exclusively that the president’s daughter and son-in-law spent the first days of the Passover holiday at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, a resort town in British Columbia, Canada.

A Jewish Insider reader shared a photo with us of Ivanka in ski gear filling up a plate of food while chatting on her cell phone a few hours before Monday night’s Seder.

 Ivanka in ski gear at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo from Jewish Insider

Ivanka in ski gear at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo from Jewish Insider

In past years, Ivanka has joined Jared’s family at the Biltmore in Arizona, at a program near the Mayan Ruins in Mexico, and last year at Ivanka’s own Trump National Doral in Miami.

In fact, Jared first met Avi Berkowitz, now his deputy at the White House, on the basketball courts at the Biltmore Passover program.

Among the featured speakers at the Whistler Passover program this year is Ami Horowitz. Horowitz is a frequent Fox News contributor and is credited with sparking President Trump’s controversial remarks in February that Sweden “took in large numbers” of refugees and was “having problems like they never thought possible.” He told those at the rally to “look at what happened last night in Sweden,” leading to a strong reaction from Swedish officials who said no terrorist attack had taken place there the previous day or in recent months. After the backlash, Trump clarified via Twitter that he first heard about the stories in Sweden from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News segment with Horowitz.

No word yet on whether Ivanka’s friend, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit the First Family in Whistler.

President Barack Obama celebrates Passover at the White House. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House

Trump administration to host White House seder


The Trump administration is planning to continue the tradition set by President Obama of hosting a Seder at the White House Monday night, White House sources told Jewish Insider.

“Many of our Jewish staff are actually going to be able to spend the holiday with their families. Our tradition is still taking shape but this year it will be an opportunity for observant WH staff that can’t be with their families to celebrate the holiday among friends,” a White House spokesperson confirmed on Monday, following our exclusive report on Friday.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“We’ll also be opening it up for other interested WH staff (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) to take part in a Seder on campus,” the official added.

As of Monday morning, it seems the President will not be attending.

President Barack Obama was the first sitting president to host a Seder in the White House.

Eric Lesser, who was one of the originators of the Obama White House Seder back in the 2008 campaign, and is now a Massachusetts State Senator, told Jewish Insider that he is not sure if the former president will be attending a Seder this year. “I’ll be in Maryland with my in laws for both nights,” Lesser said.

The first and only White House Seder before the Obama era was held in the Indian Treaty Room for 50 WH staffers under President Bill Clinton. It was organized and led by Steve Rabinowitz, now President at Bluelight Strategies.

Community Passover seders


MON | APRIL 10

“King Solomon’s Table” Seder

Chef Akasha Richmond will prepare a Passover feast and seder to celebrate Joan Nathan’s new cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table.” Served family style, the first course features various salads and spiced fried matzo. For the main course, you can choose between braised short ribs, double-lemon roast chicken or Richmond’s eggplant bake with almond ricotta. There also will be side dishes and fried artichokes (Jewish style) to accompany dinner. Passover food rules will be followed strictly and the dinner is “kosher style,” containing no dairy. Officiated by Rabbi Laura Owens, B’Nai Horin. 6 p.m. $95; $45 for children younger 12. Reservations required. AR Cucina, 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City. (310) 558-8800. arcucina.com.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple Adult Seder

Join Rabbi Susan Nanus and Cantor Seth Ettinger for a musical seder followed by a Passover meal (wine included). Older children and teens are welcome. 6:30 p.m. $40; reservation required. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401. wbtla.org/adultseder.

Chabad of Toluca Lake

Enjoy a gourmet Passover seder that is interactive for the whole family. Share and hear meaningful discussion while enjoying a four-course meal and international wines. All are welcome to join, regardless of Jewish affiliation or background. 7 p.m. $40; $20 for children. Chabad of Toluca Lake, 4912 Strohm Ave., North Hollywood. (818) 308-4118. chabadoftolucalake.com.

Chabad of Ventura

“Relive the Passover Exodus” with Rabbi Yakov and Sarah Latowicz. Enjoy a seder with a gourmet kosher brisket Passover meal paired with a variety of kosher wines from Herzog Wine Cellars and authentic, handmade shmurah matzo from Israel. The event will feature an abridged (but traditional) seder, fully illustrated and colorful haggadah in Hebrew and English, contemporary spiritual messages and songs. All are welcome to join this community seder, regardless of Jewish affiliation or background. 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation of $54, $26 for children younger than 10. Nobody will be turned away for lack of finances. Pierpont Racquet Club, 500 Sanjon Road, Ventura Beach. chabadventura.com.

For more Chabad Passover events, visit chabad.org.

Jem Community Center

Relax as you relive this festival of freedom and take a journey through the haggadah with traditional songs, stories and spiritual insights. Enjoy a gourmet Passover dinner, original handmade shmurah matzo and four glasses of kosher wine. Everyone is welcome and nobody will be turned away due to lack of funds. 8 p.m. Second night seder at 8 p.m. April 11. $60; $30 for children. JEM Community Center, 9930 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 772-0000. jemcommunitycenter.com.

TUES | APRIL 11

Hollywood Temple Beth El Sing-Along

Enjoy a kosher meal and the telling of the Exodus story in song at “Some Enchanted Pesach Seder.” Sing along to parodies of music from Disney movies and by Stephen Sondheim, the Beatles and Adele. Kosher for Passover. 6 p.m. $80; subject to availability. Hollywood Temple Beth El, 1317 N. Crescent Heights, West Hollywood. (323) 656-3150. htbel.org.

Temple Etz Chaim Family Seder

Enjoy a seder with the family led by Rabbi Richard Spiegel and Chazzan Pablo Duek. 6:30 p.m. $55; $32 for children ages 6-12; $20 for children ages 3-5. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891. templeetzchaim.org.

Tips and tales from a seasoned seder leader


What kind of leadership style works best for a seder? During a period when we are experiencing a shake-up in national leadership, you may want to re-examine the relationship that exists between leader and participants at the Passover meal.

Though seder leaders and participants are not elected, there is still a seder mandate that governs your relationship: Everyone present — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and even the one who does not know how to ask a question — are all involved in the evening’s proceedings.

Attending a Passover seder remains an “extremely common practice” of American Jews, according to Pew Research Center, with approximately 70 percent participating. Despite its broad mandate, however, meaningful seders rarely function as true democracies. The seder is a complicated undertaking with symbolic foods, actions and storytelling, and on this night that is different from all others, the call is for an assertive leader who can guide a tableful of guests through a sea of ritual needs.

Since Passover is an eight-day holiday of freedom, and the seder a celebration of the going out from Egypt, you may think the people are clamoring for a democratic free-form kind of dinner — from chanting the kiddush to singing “Chad Gadya.” But after leading a family seder for more than 30 years, my experience has been that if I give everyone a free hand to comment and question, and the seder runs long, revolution erupts, with the guests vigorously chanting “When do we eat?” And if I try to rule the table with an iron Kiddush Cup, my poll numbers plummet, especially among the restless, 20-something contingent that starts texting madly under the table, presumably plotting a resistance.

Defying typical political alignment, I have found that on the nights when the seder works — when most every question has been asked, and tradition and innovation have been shared — my style of leadership has fallen somewhere between being a benevolent dictator and a liberal talk-show host.

I say “benevolent dictator” because it is part of the leader’s job to find a way for everyone to retell the Passover story and ultimately exit the slavery of Egypt — even though they may not necessarily feel the need. Going around the table urging guests to share the reading is one way, and calling up guests beforehand to discuss and assign a specific section of the seder is another. Especially for whomever is going to lead the Four Questions — at our table, usually the youngest who can read Hebrew — it helps to ask them personally beforehand rather than springing the task on them on the night of the seder. Such quiet lobbying helps reorient one from being an audience member into one, as the haggadah says, who can see themselves as if they had left Egypt.

As “liberal talk-show host,” I get that the haggadah is filled with questions that must be questioned as well. I once opened a seder by asking, “What does it mean when the haggadah says: ‘Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us?’ ” Especially in a year such as this one, when even benign conversation is abuzz with politics, there are going to be varying responses, from the bitter, like maror, to the sweet, like charoset.

At the time, you may not think that these opposing points of view are what binds together a seder, but recall that in the haggadah, when the five rabbis are sitting in Bnei Brak telling and interpreting the story of the Exodus, each has something different to add, and it is the whole of their interpretations taken together that heightens our understanding of the text.

Those not leading but participating in the seder, don’t think that you are off the hook in setting its tone. In his book “Keeping Passover,” Ira Steingroot points out that being a seder guest “doesn’t mean that you have to be the life of the party or a maven (authority), and you certainly do not want to monopolize the conversation, but you have a role to play in the drama of the seder.” In fact, it is your responses and feelings that determine whether everyone at the table makes it past the plague of ennui. To aid in that quest, be sure you are following along, asking questions and responding to the leader’s prompts.

I have also learned that regardless of leadership style — some of us are like Moses pointing the way, others are more like Miriam, leading through interpretation and song — you will still need to do your homework. Steingroot’s book is a great source, as well as “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration” by Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver, and “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” by David Dishon and Noam Zion.

Taking my own advice, a few nights before our first encounter with all things matzo each year, I go through the haggadah and annotate, searching for my afikomen: a way to connect the story of traveling from slavery to freedom to the lives of my guests. One year, I held up a Passover chocolate bar and referred to it as “the bean of our affliction,” calling attention to the children who are sometimes exploited to harvest cacao beans and as a way to discuss if we, too, were participating in slavery.

This year to provoke discussion, before we open the door to Elijah, I plan to ask guests to imagine what would happen if the prophet, as we imagine him — a robed and perhaps turbaned man from the Middle East — was detained at airport customs. n

A family re-enacts the oppression that Israelite slaves felt as part of a Passover seder in 2014 in Encino. Photo by Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

10 easy ways to avoid a boring seder


If your Passover seder is anything like mine, it can resemble the world’s most difficult classroom: different ages, ranging from 3 to 93, and varying levels of interest. Some want to read and discuss every word in the haggadah, some just want to get to the food — and everything in between.

Designing a seder that can work for everyone can feel like a challenge for even the most seasoned educator, let alone a busy parent.

But there is magic in the seder. Having loved ones around a table together can feel like a luxury in this day and age, so here are some tips for making the most of the festive meal. I hope these ideas will inspire you to be creative in a way that feels authentic to your seder.

The seder’s purpose is to get people to ask questions, so the more you break the mold of the way you always have done it, the more likely you and your guests will be able to access the true meaning of the holiday. Here are 10 tips to perk up your seder this year.

1. Put out some food earlier. Food always is important at Jewish events and never more so than in the seder. It can feel like a long time until you get to dinner, but after karpas (the green vegetable that comes right at the beginning), you can serve appetizers. Veggies and dip or fruit are good healthy options, but my family also puts out candy, which keeps the kids busy for a little while. If you want to be thematic, there is fair-trade, slavery-free chocolate that is kosher for Passover.

2. Play with your food. Along the same theme, there are fun ways you can incorporate food into the heart of the seder. One friend of ours attaches the parsley to mini fishing rods and uses them to dip the parsley in the salt water. Another friend chops up lots of fruits and nuts (and even some chocolate) and allows the guests to make their own charoset, as long as it resembles the mortar. When it comes time to remember the plague of hail, I have heard of families throwing mini marshmallows at one another. Finally, there is a Persian custom of lightly (or not so lightly) slapping your neighbor with scallions during the song “Dayenu” as a reminder of slavery.

3. Use the table. Put something interesting on the table, either in the middle or at each individual plate. We have used different kinds of frogs, puppets and masks. Perhaps it will inspire a guest to ask a question about Passover, the story or the traditions of your family. At the very least it will entertain those at the table when they need a break.

4. Don’t be a slave to the haggadah. The haggadah is meant as a guide, and you don’t have to read every word to fulfill your obligation to tell the story. Get many haggadot and look for readings and retellings that speak to you and share those at the seder. Or get the kids to write a play about the Passover story and perform it. Or ask your guests to bring something that represents freedom and tell the story of why. As long as your guests are engaged in the story of slavery to freedom, you have done your job.

5. Move around. This is the story of a wandering people. If you have the space, then wander! Do one piece of the seder in the living room, one in the dining room, or even go outside if the weather is nice. Turn a few bed sheets into the sea and walk through it on your way to the Promised Land. Give your guests a chance to be in the story, not just talk about it.

6. Assign pre-seder homework. People always do better if they are prepared, so ask your guests to participate in the seder. Send a question in advance, ask them to bring something or even make decorations for the seder table. Guests, bring a reading or an object that speaks to you. I guarantee your host will appreciate not having to carry the weight of the entire evening.

7. Give everyone a job. Before the seder, make a list of everything that has to be done during the evening, from pouring the wine to serving the soup to clearing the table. Then, assign away. Your guests will be happy to help, and you will be happier if you come out of the seder not feeling enslaved.

8. Sing (or watch videos). There are tons of songs for kids and adults alike for Passover. Google around to find tunes that you like and teach them at your seder. Providing song sheets helps everyone sing along. And if singing is not your thing, a quick search on YouTube for Passover song parodies turns up videos that would be fun to watch before or during the seder.

9. Make something. When I was about 10 years old, I spent hours creating a chart that outlined the order of the seder. I made a small arrow that could be used to show where we were in the progression of the evening, and since then it has been used every year. My mother still brings out Elijah’s cups that my sisters and I made in Hebrew school, and my kids proudly show off their seder plates, Kiddush Cups and matzo covers. If your kids don’t make them in school, these are easy crafts to make at home.

10. Let loose. The point of the seder is to engage people in the questions, both ancient and contemporary, of slavery and freedom. The way you do that is up to you. Try to find a balance between preparing for the seder and obsessing about every detail. And if your kids run in circles screaming around the table while everyone else is trying to talk, as mine have done on more than one occasion, those are memories too. Don’t beat yourself up about it.


RABBI REBECCA ROSENTHAL is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue in New York City. Rosenthal and her husband live in the city with their three children.

Photo from Pexels

My iPhone is my Egypt


What is your Egypt?

The people, the food and the storytelling are what I love most about the Passover seder I go to, but I also really like the updates to the ritual. We spill drops of wine as we name the ten Biblical plagues, but we count off ten modern plagues as well, like hunger and terrorism. Traditional symbols are on the table, like horseradish for the bitterness of slavery and salt water for tears, but there’s also an orange, an innovation from the 1970s, standing for feminism and against homophobia. (An orange? Seriously? There’s a story.)

I’m especially partial to this twist: We sing Avadim Hayinu, “Once were slaves in Egypt,” but we also ask the question I began with, as a metaphor, and in the present tense. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits,” a tight place. In the story the Book of Exodus tells, the enslaved Jews are liberated from Egypt. Our seder asks us, What pharaoh owns you? What tightness binds you? What constriction do you need to free yourself from?

I’m writing this before the first night of Passover, so this is a prediction, but a safe one: I’ll be amazed if there’s anyone at our seder who won’t have a little Egypt in their pocket or purse. Everyone will of course silence their ringers, but I’d be surprised if a few of us don’t manage to sneak a peek at our screens; if many of us won’t be fighting a compulsion to do that several times an hour; and if most of us, in the moments between seder and meal, don’t check out what came in while we were asking why this night is different from all other nights.

On all other nights, there are smartphones on the table.

I’ll admit it: I’m rarely without my iPhone, even for a few minutes (you know: in case of an emergency, or my kids are trying to reach me, or I don’t want the plumber to go to voicemail). Some studies say that on average, people check their phones every six-and-a-half minutes, 150 times a day; some say – yikes – as many as 2,617 times a day. Whatever my own number is, it’s bound to be embarrassing. Like most people, I can rattle off one reason after another to excuse that frequency. It’s for work. It’s for news. It’s for stoking my civic outrage at you know who. It’s for Yelp or Uber or Google or Netflix. It’s for weather, scores, maps, directions, texting, posting, liking, Skyping, tweeting, eating, friending, mating. It’s for playing games, taking pictures, getting a jump on my email, working out to my playlists, killing time while I’m riding an elevator, standing in line, waiting for the water to boil.

This is madness.

We’re as adept at justifying being phone junkies as addicts are at rationalizing their habit. We’re hooked on stimulation, on that spike of happy that hits our neurons when a NEW! NOW! NEXT! attracts our attention. Boredom terrifies us; to endure it without our iBlow would be like going cold turkey ten times as hour. But as MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, there’s a downside to calling our dependence on digital devices an addiction. It implies that our behavior is personal weakness, that it’s futile to resist. What needs our attention isn’t the cause of what ails us, but its toll on our wellness. What wants therapy is how our gizmos narrow the rest of our lives – how, as Turkle writes in “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” they constrict “our capacity to be alone and together,” how they contract “our ability to understand others and be heard.”

Turkle identifies a crisis of solitude and a crisis of empathy in our lives. “As we struggle to truly pay attention to ourselves,” to experience boredom and anxiety and the “rich, messy and demanding” feelings inherent in human relationships, “we struggle to pay attention to each other.” The more time we spend online, or itching to be online, the less time for “the risks of face-to-face conversation. But it’s there that empathy is born and intimacy thrives…. It’s often when we stumble, or struggle for our words, or are silent, that we reveal ourselves most to each other and to ourselves.”

Turkle is no Luddite. She describes the moment when, very nervous, about to give the first talk of a book tour, setting her iPhone on the podium to start a timer, she got a text from her daughter: “Mom, you will rock this.” Yes, the message was digitally delivered. But that didn’t undo its affect or its effect. “It was like a kiss.”

We need an intervention. We need to practice undivided attention – to each other, in conversation, and to ourselves, in solitude. “We don’t have to give up our phones,” she says, “but we have to use them more deliberately, …by working to protect sacred places, spaces without technology, in our everyday lives.”

Our madness is recent. The iPhone is just 10 years old. Still, that’s long enough for me to want a new ringtone: “Let my people go.”


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Words to the whys at your seder


PARASHAT VAYIKRA (LEVITICUS 1:1-5:26)

This week, in many synagogues around the world, we begin to read a new book, Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. Here we are taught: “No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:11).

The two times the Torah forbids leaven (chametz) is in this verse referring to the altar and also on Passover. What is the link?

According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his “Ha’emek Davar,” leavened bread is the human attempt to add onto the natural state of creation. The closer we stand in our relationship with God, the less we need to manipulate nature. The altar was in the Beit HaMikdash — the dwelling place of God’s presence on Earth, a place of intense proximity. There is no need for our chametz intervention. Likewise, with Passover, we bind our souls to God as we eat the “Bread of Faith.” There is no need for extra tinkering.

As Vayikra, in ever a slight way, turns
our attention to Passover, let us jump in
with a few holiday-related gems to share at the seder.

Paying for Hope

Buying Chanukah candles and paying for the four cups of wine on Pesach are the only mitzvot that require a poor person to sell their clothes, if need be, in order to be carried out, according to Jewish law. Why only these two items?

Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner explained that at the root of this law is the notion that every poor person must know that even in the middle of their darkest hour and their darkest exile, God brings light. The promise of Chanukah and the hope of the four cups, both of which celebrate pirsumei nisah, the publicizing of the miracle, underscore the point that in the moment when things are most difficult in our lives, we are going to find that salvation.

In the Kiddush, we say that Shabbat is first among our holy days and is “a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.” What does this line mean?

The bodyguard of the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, shares his take: The amazing power of the Exodus is imbedded with the ability to help us transcend above levels that we couldn’t ordinarily attain. So the beginning of a great and triumphant renewal starts within the darkness — moments when we thought all hope was lost. Right at that moment, God says, “Hold out your hand, and I will help you move to places you never dreamed possible.”

A Holy Effort

Why does wine have its own distinct blessing? We don’t make a separate blessing on the meat or the chicken that’s brought out later. Rav Chaim Zeitchik says it’s not because of wine’s precious value. I’m sure that we could find a rare food that has a higher dollar amount, perhaps caviar.

You know what’s precious about it? Dvar mitzvah habaah mitoch yagiyah chashoov. Something that comes through work, a process, is more important, much more powerful. The blessing upon wine is special because it took work to get to it. You take grapes, you have to wait for fermentation, you have to press them out in order to bring it to your wine cup.

Something is much greater when you get it through effort. It is for this same reason why the beautiful stones the priests wore in the temple are mentioned last out of all of his clothing in the Torah. According to the tradition of the Talmud, these stones came to us via the clouds. In other words, they were a freebie. We didn’t work to get them and therefore they are less precious to us.

 A Roman Custom

At specifically placed times throughout the seder, we recline by leaning to the left. The Talmud mentions a pragmatic reason for this: so that we shouldn’t choke. The rabbinic tradition favored another reason, and that is that reclining is a symbol of our freedom.

Rabbi Norman Lamm asks a great question: Why did we adopt a symbol of freedom that was synonymous with the Romans, especially given that there are so many beautiful Jewish customs and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Look around. Our seder is incomplete. We are missing the korban Pesach, the Passover offering, which was the highlight of Passover in the ancient Temple. We are missing so much because the Romans laid waste to our divine abode. We went into exile because the Romans sent us into exile. And so, ironically, we recline to display a great remembrance, a zecher l’mikdash. We remember our Temple while those who ravaged it no longer are here. 

RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015). He also holds the record for the longest continuous Torah class at 18 hours.

Children’s books offer new ways to enjoy the holiday


New Passover books for children include a variety of themes that previously have not been explored. There’s a picture book about a Jewish Argentine gaucho, a visit to Moses in a 3-D time machine, and an examination of what it would be like to hold a seder when a grandparent is ill.

Consider these as Passover gifts for some of the youngest participants at your seder this year:

“The Passover Cowboy” by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Apples & Honey Press, 2017.

This Passover-themed story takes place in the early years of the 20th century in Argentina, where (we learn from the author’s note) 25,000 Russian Jews settled with the help of German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Young Jacob is learning how to ride horses like his new friend Benito, and even though Jacob has been in the country for less than a year, he is doing his best to become a typical Argentine gaucho. His mother even offers him a special Passover gift of bombachas — loose, wide pants for riding horses. When Benito arrives as a guest at the family’s seder, he brings Jacob another coveted gift — a lasso to signify that Jacob has been accepted in his new country. The watercolor illustrations are heavily researched and depict the period and the holiday celebration beautifully. 

“Passover Scavenger Hunt” by Shanna Silva. Illustrated by Miki Sakamoto. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-passover-scav-huntGreat Uncle Harry is terrible at hiding the afikomen. All the kids anticipate his usual hiding places, and so the search isn’t very fun. But young Rachel hatches a clever plan and offers him the option to let her hide the matzo this year. She then creates a family scavenger hunt containing a variety of rhyming clues. With each solved riddle, the other children get a part of a puzzle that, when pieced together, contains the biggest clue about where the afikomen is hidden. Information regarding the symbols on the seder plate is included within the clues, and even Uncle Harry is in on the merriment by the end. A fun game that could become a future family tradition.

“How It’s Made: Matzah” by Allison Ofanansky. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. Apples & Honey, 2017.

book-matzahLast year, we learned from this same author-photographer team how a Torah is made. Now, kids get to meet the people who make matzo (heralded as “the ultimate fast food”), either by hand or by machine, but always within 18 minutes. One of the matzah-makers states, “Making matzah teaches us to work together. It is not possible to make matzah alone.” These books are special because of their innovative graphic design, various Passover do-it-yourself projects and depictions of diversity throughout more than 100 engaging photos. Plus, there is a recipe for homemade matzo and, of course, a recommendation to “Watch the clock!”

“The Family (and Frog!) Haggadah” by Rabbi Ron Isaacs and Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrations by Jackie Urbanovic. Behrman House, 2017.

book-frog-haggadahIf your haggadah is too dull for the kids at your seder table, consider this charming new offering that features the talkative Frog commenting on the traditional text. Large, engaging photos — often paired with interesting family discussion-starters — ensure that this year will be more fun for everyone. Frog is depicted as hopping from page to page as he spreads his froggie puns and wisecracks. Examples include finding a “piece of toadst” while searching for chametz, and penciling in (with green crayon, of course) a suggestion to include a “Frog’s cup” along with Elijah’s. But the strengths of this family-friendly haggadah are in the flow of its storytelling, its compelling content and design, and the inclusion of Hebrew transliterations. The content is mostly English, but main passages such as blessings, the Four Questions, the Ten Plagues and parts of songs are included in Hebrew.

“Meeting Moses” by Robert Chasin. Illustrated by Matt Roussel. Meeting Bible Heroes Publishing, 2017.

book-meeting-mosesThe Exodus story meets H.G. Wells in this tale of Max and his professor dad, who has invented a time-traveling machine. The standout 3-D illustrations will highly engage children. They remind the reader of a mix of Claymation and a video game, and seem to be partially painted and partially computer-generated. The story follows Max, who has inadvertently taken the time machine to ancient Egypt. By the Nile River, he meets young Moses and young Ramses with Pharaoh’s daughter and is taken to meet Pharaoh. Max is imprisoned, but then freed by Moses. The two travel through time together to Mount Sinai so Max can show Moses what his future will be. Exciting illustrations depict the burning bush, how the stone tablets could have been written, the golden calf, and Moses breaking the tablets. Max eventually gets back home to the present day by tricking Pharaoh and using the convenient “rewind” button to delete the experience from the memories of those he left behind. (It should be noted that the author used the term “Old Testament” to refer to the Hebrew Bible.) The book is available inexpensively in e-book format from the author’s website as well as in a hardcover version.

“A Different Kind of Passover” by Linda Leopold-Strauss. Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-different-passA young girl practices the Four Questions in Hebrew and travels, as usual, to her grandparents’ house for the seder with her extended family. She loves the repetition of the yearly rituals, but this year her “heart hurts” because Grandpa was in the hospital recently and cannot leave his bed to lead the seder. She cleverly solves the problem of how Grandpa still can be included with the rest of the family and learns that when things change, they also can remain the same in many ways. The well-written and poignant tale provides us with a young person’s view of the meaning of joyful Passover family traditions.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

How to host your first seder


Hosting a dinner party can be stressful enough. Hosting a seder for the first time can seem positively overwhelming. There are so many moving parts. We spoke to four veteran hosts who have hosted more than 100 Passover seder dinners between them. Here is some of their advice.

Start Early

“There is a lot of detail with this holiday,” said Liat Miller, 37, of Sherman Oaks. Miller, who identifies as a liberal Conservative Jew, always starts by making a guest list, which dictates whether she needs to rent tables and chairs.

Especially if you’re doing kosher, Miller said, “going to the butcher the week before is a nightmare.” Miller suggests purchasing the meat in advance and freezing it. She generally cooks a brisket two days before the meal. She lets it cool, slices it and pops it in the fridge. “Then you just heat it before you serve it.”

Sandy Croll, 75, of Beverly Hills, whose family worships at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, said lamb shanks for the seder plate can be hard to come by and often sell out. Make advance arrangements. “There’s no formula [for Passover],” she offered, “except, ‘Be prepared.’ ”

Choose a Haggadah and a Leader

There are so many haggadah options. Find one that resonates with you and is appropriate for your audience. Beverly Hills resident Leanore Saltz, 88, who has long been active in the local secular Jewish community, has a collection of secular haggadot she has acquired over the years, including one from the Sholem Community and another from the Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center, both Los Angeles-based organizations. She likes that they talk about Passover “in an historical sense” as well as “our obligations today as Jews.”

Miller suggests a simple haggadah for first-timers. She and her husband considered the “30 Minute Seder” available on Amazon. Instead, she simply customized one she already had by highlighting portions she found most meaningful. “I can’t get 20 kids to listen for two hours,” she said. “You have to be realistic.”

Make sure you have enough haggadot. Croll recommends one for every other person so people can share easily, if not one for every guest. “It keeps people on track and keeps people involved,” she said.

And even if you envision a very participatory seder, with people taking turns reading or reading together, designate a leader, in advance.

Also, consider reading through the haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips. For example, Croll said, traditionally at a seder, the leader of the service washes her hands ceremonially. So she sets an attractive bowl and pitcher of water at the table expressly for this purpose.

Don’t Go It Alone

The first seder Evelyn Drapkin, 46, hosted nearly a dozen years ago at her home in Los Feliz might easily have been her last. A member of Temple Beth Hillel, she tried to do everything on her own. “It was really hard,” she said. “Dinner wasn’t on time. It wasn’t as peaceful. … I was like, ‘I’m never doing it again.’ ”

Instead, the following year she asked her guests to bring the side dishes. That has remained her system. Those who don’t cook, she asks to bring wine.

And there’s no rule that says everything has to be homemade. One year, Saltz’s husband made gefilte fish from scratch. “It was so timeconsuming,” she said. Now she buys Manischewitz gefilte fish. To give it additional flavor, she cooks it with sautéed onions and carrots as well as white wine and seasonings. And though she’s never done it herself, she points out that there are plenty of businesses such as Got Kosher? on Pico Boulevard where you can pick up an entire Passover dinner (orders must be placed by April 3).

Consider doing individual seder plates for each guest with the bitter herbs, charoset, vegetable (often parsley) and salt water. This way, Croll said, people aren’t reaching across the table and spilling wine and grape juice and dripping salt water everywhere. “I use little plastic throwaways,” she said.

And make certain you have plenty of matzo.

Consider reading through the Haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips.

Have Fun

Passover, Saltz said, is a happy holiday. So singing is a big part of their evening. Most haggadot feature several songs. But you don’t need to limit yourself to those. Saltz and her family sing Yiddish songs as well as the Israeli folk song “Zum Gali Gali.”

Croll makes sure every guest has a packet that includes song lyrics to all the tunes they sing, including “Let My People Go” and “The Ballad of the Four Sons,” which is sung to the tune of “Clementine” (Said the father to the children/ At the seder you will dine/ You will eat your fill of matzo/ You will drink four cups of wine). This way, newcomers, or those who may not remember the words from one year to the next, can sing along.

In keeping with the tradition she grew up with in Israel, Miller usually gets something new to wear that evening. So do her husband and kids. “It’s spring, a new beginning,” she said.

Remember the Kids

It’s the rare child who will sit quietly and contentedly through a long seder. Croll always sets up a special kids activity table with Passover-themed coloring pages and puzzles.

One year, leading up to the seder, Miller asked one of her guests who is especially good with kids to come up with something to keep the younger guests busy while the main course was being plated. Miller’s friend created a scavenger hunt based on the Israelites. It was a huge hit. Miller also sometimes puts on an animated movie about the Exodus when the kids’ attention starts to fade. “At least it’s in the spirit of the holiday,” she said.

And don’t forget to get prizes for the kids if you plan to hide the afikomen. Also, children can and should help with the preparations. Drapkin shows her two school-age daughters a place setting once the tables and linens are set up, then she has them replicate that.

Know Your Audience

While the desire to include everyone in the festivities is understandable, remember that not every guest is necessarily eager to lead off the group in song or read a passage featuring unfamiliar words. Especially for a child who isn’t a confident reader, “that might be really embarrassing,” Croll said. “I think if there were any doubt, I would check with the parents before.”

Make It Your Own

If there is something you want to do at your seder or put on your seder table, go for it. For the hosts we spoke with, often it is the original aspects, the parts you won’t find in any haggadah, that are most meaningful. For example, several years ago, Croll’s husband introduced a group reading of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at their seder. This has remained a fixture of the gathering.

The Drapkins light multiple yahrzeit candles for loved ones they have lost, including Evelyn’s mom, as well as the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and victims of 9/11. They also invite their guests to light candles for anyone they have lost. It’s a tradition Drapkin picked up from her mother-in-law.

Saltz intends to add an orange to her seder table this year. This was something she learned at a seder hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women, a group she is active in. “The orange symbolizes fertility and that the women did all these things back in the ancient days but were never given credit for it,” she said. “So you put one orange on the table. That orange represents Miriam. She danced and sang. She brought life to the table.”

Consider Hiring Help

“I personally think Passover is the most difficult meal,” Saltz said. “You’re making so many different courses.” She said she uses more dishes than at any other holiday. But she doesn’t find it stressful, in part because it’s very much a group effort at her home, with her husband making his famous double chicken soup a week in advance. Saltz makes the hard matzo balls her family favors the day of, and her adult daughters contribute kugel, vegetable sides and desserts.

“I just find someone to do the dishes,” she said.

That’s an investment Miller wholeheartedly supports. “If you can afford help, you should get help. Give yourself the break of the whole night off.”

Hebrew Word of the Week: rimmon


The pomegranate is one of several components of the Sephardic seder for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday. The symbolic reason for eating it is “so that we become filled with mitzvot (good deeds, religious observations), as the pomegranate is filled with seeds.” Interestingly, the English word also means “apple/fruit full of grains (seeds),” from French-Latin pomum granatum. Compare to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits.

The etymology of the Hebrew word rimmon is not clear. Some connect it with rimmot “worms” (the seeds look like a swarm of worms?); more likely it comes from r-m-m /r-u-m / ramah “hillock.” Indeed, several places in the Bible are called Rimmon (Joshua 15:32; Judges 20:45-47). In Song of Songs 4:3, the beautiful face of the beloved is compared to a luscious and shining split-open pomegranate, and she promises her lover to let him drink of her pomegranate juice (8:2).

On Nat Geo show, Morgan Freeman sits down for Seder


While the prophet Elijah remains conspicuously absent, one Passover Seder in Jerusalem received a more well-known guest.

Morgan Freeman, the well-known actor and voiceover artist, attended a Seder held by Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, the first woman born in Israel to become a rabbi. Footage of the evening aired on May 8 during the sixth episode Freeman’s National Geographic show, “The Story of God.”

The show explores different religious traditions in an effort to uncover the roots and meaning of spiritual practice. Sunday’s episode was titled “The Power of Miracles.”

Nisan, the Jewish calendar month when Passover takes place, “comes from the word nisim, which is miracles,” Leibovich explained to the actor. “It’s the month of miracles.”

The rabbi walked Freeman through the story of the Passover miracles and the various Seder traditions, including the reading of the ten plagues.

“With all due respect Morgan, the children are the center of this night,” she said, referring to the four questions typically read by the youngest person present.

Freeman is famous for his baritone voice and also for playing God in the Jim Carrey film “Bruce Almighty.” A previous documentary television series narrated by the actor, “Through the Wormhole,” was nominated for two primetime Emmy Awards, according to IMDB.

Among other interviewees in Sunday’s episode, Freeman also spoke with a man who fell 46 stories and lived and a pastor who claims prayer saved him from a life-threatening disease.

The full episode can be viewed with a qualifying cable subscription on National Geographic’s website.

Amid ‘exodus’ from Brussels, my family sings a sad ‘ma nishtana’


I was feeling nervous about coming to Brussels for seder with my family.

Making the 130-mile trip there from my home in Amsterdam meant taking my 5-month-old son on a train that last year saw an attempted jihadist attack, and into a city that is still reeling and on alert from the March 22 Islamist bombings that killed 32 people.

I wasn’t worried about terrorism, though. Having experienced, by the time I turned 19, two intifadas and the Gulf War missile attacks in my native Israel, I was pretty much immune to terrorism’s psychological effects.

No, I fretted over my family’s violent and scary rendition of “Echad Mi Yodea” — the cumulative-verse Passover song that they enjoy hollering, building up to an ecstatic crescendo. By the 13th and final verse, about 35 of them are shrieking, red-faced and hoarse, while pounding fists and cutlery on the table like some prison riot scene.

I have grown immune to this tradition’s psychological effects, too, and on occasion had even used it to test the mental composure of unsuspecting dates. But I feared it would all be too much for little baby Ilai.

Yet as I waited for all hell to break loose last week, I saw my worries were unfounded. My family’s “Echad Mi Yodea” this year was a shadow of its former self in what I suddenly realized was a vivid illustration of the absence of relatives from my age group who, like many Belgian Jews, have left their native country because of its anti-Semitism problem. With each passing year, there were fewer of us around the seder table.

My Belgian relatives have said goodbye to nine young seder rioters over the past 15 years. Six enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and made aliyah. Two immigrated to the United States and one moved to London.

I came to Brussels this year because this seder was the sendoff for a second cousin and his wife, a physician and an architect, who are moving to Florida. His sister and her Belgian Jewish husband already live there.

“This is my last seder as a European,” cousin Mark (not his real name) told me over the phone. We spoke in Hebrew, a language learned by all my Belgian relatives my age at the insistence of aunts and uncles who were born to Holocaust survivors and who always regarded aliyah as a contingency plan in case things went south in Belgium.

“I want you to be there to send me off from slavery to freedom,” Mark said.

He feared for the future of his own two children in a country where Jewish schools are under heavy military guard and where Jewish students are being forced out of public schools because of anti-Semitic bullying.

“Things are bad here and I want a better future for my children,” he told me.

I asked Joel Rubinfeld, the founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCOJB umbrella of group of French-speaking Belgian Jewish communities, whether my family was unusual when it came to its emigration agenda.

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “There is the beginning of an expedited emigration process. Our only statistical view on it is through aliyah, which tells a very partial story in a community with highly educated members who can settle anywhere in Europe and have little trouble getting visas to the U.S., Canada and Australia.”

In 2014, Rubinfeld warned Belgian Jewry was seeing an “exodus” because of anti-Semitism.

Last year, 287 Jews immigrated to Israel from Belgium, which has a Jewish population of about 40,000. It was the highest figure recorded in a decade. From 2010 to 2015, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made aliyah annually — a 56 percent increase over the annual average of 133 new arrivals from Belgium in 2005-2009, according to Israeli government data.

Unlike French Jews, who tend to speak only one native language, Belgian Jews speak two and often three languages fluently. This could mean Belgian Jews have an easier time than their French counterparts immigrating to destinations that are not Israel.

Linda, Mark’s sister, moved to London and had two kids there with an Israel-born husband. She wants to leave Britain for Florida because she doesn’t feel safe in the United Kingdom either.

“Europe is doomed. The bad guys won,” she said. “I’m not going to raise my children in fear just to make a point.”

Her father is a French-born lawyer who was raised Catholic by his mother, a Holocaust survivor, before reconnecting to his Jewish roots. He told me his feeling of personal safety in Brussels was irreversibly shattered when robbers invaded his home a few years ago, tied up him and his wife, and beat him before robbing the couple.

“We may have been singled out by the robbers because we’re Jewish, but at this point, does it matter? It completely changes how you feel just walking down the street,” he said. He and his wife are preparing to join their two children in Florida.

Catching up with other relatives between seder songs, I found myself chatting in Hebrew to Sylvia, an aunt whose three children are living in Israel with their spouses. It took a while before I realized that the last time we spoke Hebrew, she was limited to basic sentences like “I have a yellow pencil.”

Unbeknownst to me, she and her husband have been attending ulpan, Hebrew-language school, preparing to join their children in Israel. They bought a penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv years ago.

Even before the eruption 15 years ago of anti-Semitic Islamism in Europe, Sylvia and her husband said they would leave Belgium if ever the National Front, the far-right party in neighboring France, would come to power.

Another uncle, I learned during the seder, had taken up Israeli citizenship last year like two of his four children, who are currently serving in the Israeli army, but is still living in Belgium.

“It hardly matters if I do it now or in a few years when we actually move to Israel, so I figured, why not?” he explained.

But I recalled the very different attitude of his late mother, my great-aunt and matriarch of my family’s Belgian branch. A Polish-born, steel-willed woman who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Belgium, she was always proud of her adopted country, where she and her husband survived and later prospered.

Though she raised her three children to be very pro-Israel, she enrolled the first two in a public school and strongly encouraged all of them to stay in Belgium, where she mastered impeccable French and integrated seamlessly.

I asked her daughter, the one preparing to follow her two children to Florida, why she doesn’t share her late mother’s attachment to Belgium.

“My mother and her generation felt gratitude to Belgium after coming from Poland, where even before the Holocaust there were limits to a Jew’s social advancement,” said my aunt, a physician. “Belgium was her America. It welcomed her with open arms. We have had a different experience here.”

The fifth child – missing in the contemporary world


Last weekend many Jews attended a Seder, but many others did not. I find it heartbreaking when I think about all the Jews who chose not to participate, and question the reasons for this. What are the implications of so many people not connecting to this paradigmatic story of the journey from enslavement to freedom? In the past decades, Passover has seen a tremendous infusion of creativity and Haggadot have been written for nearly every social or personal identity and political cause. The ancient rabbis who shaped the Haggadah were creative geniuses who captured the timeless story of the Israelite’s journey from slavery to freedom

Although I find the Haggadah one of the most imaginative, insightful and timeless dramas ever created, there is one modern-day phenomena that the rabbis did not anticipate. When they describe the four children–the wise one, the one who is angry, the innocent one, and the one who does not know how to ask–they are operating under the assumption that everyone will be together at the Seder table. These four personality traits cover most of the human behavior characteristics and qualities that we all possess. Thus, all who represent the four children sit at the Seder Table, regardless of whether or not they like participating in Jewish practice, feel alienated, are uncomfortable, are going through tough times, or do not understand the holiday or know how to participate.  They are still there – they are at the table of Jewish life.

The ancient sages did not anticipate modernity and the fact that many Jews would no longer actually be at the Seder Table. They did not imagine the fifth child. I am hearing more and more about people who did not attend a Seder, that Passover observance is on the decline and that the Jewish community is not offering enough welcome and dynamic tables that are open and affordable to all.

This fifth child is a lens into the perhaps the greatest challenge of the contemporary Jewish life. For whatever reason, some people feel alienated, disconnected, or have made other activities a priority and don’t feel the need of being at the Seder Table. In many ways, the Jewish community has failed to convey that without the fifth child present, we are not the same – we are somewhat of an incomplete community; our tables have too many empty seats.

The greatest concern lies within the non-Orthodox community. The majority of American Jews have made a Seder an optional activity, no longer an expectation to gather for this family holiday where we explore the quintessential story of freedom that has shaped the Jewish people. A recent Pew Study showed that 70% of American Jews attended a Seder in 2015. Up through the late 90’s the percentage was around 90 percent. We need much more than programmatic solutions like “audacious hospitality” (a well-intended term developed by the Reform movement) in order to reach the fifth child.  It is a good start but we need to explore solutions that resonate to the fifth child, we need ideas that take us out of our comfort zone and push us to find ways to welcome people back to the table. We need to thoughtfully listen to the reasons they are missing from our tables, in order to fully understand what’s going on.

The fifth child has become the third rail of Jewish life. We are scared to really examine the phenomena and we convince ourselves that things are great because we had a good Seder. Passover remains the Jewish holiday that has the highest participation, and it is on a decline. We will only really begin to stem the tide of assimilation and alienation when we start to listen with the fifth child, when we engage with creative, dynamic and open minds (who often are not part of the Jewish establishment) but who are finding solutions to some of the most vexing issues in the modern world and when we really do an honest self-examination of the state of Jewish life.

 We can only really be free when more Jews are back at the Table. For the fifth child reading this – we need you. For those of us who are one of the four children – we need to dig deeper, look inward and listen better so that we can include the entire family, especially the growing number of fifth children.

On this holiday that is truly an anchor of Judaism, we are reminded of the power and responsibility of freedom. Let us take serious stock of this problem.  The creativity and imagination that freedom allows can fuel us to take action and find better ways to include the fifth child at the Table. When more people sit at the Table of Jewish life on Pesach and throughout the year, when the Tent of Jewish life is more tolerant and respectful of divergent views, we will include many more who will nurture and sustain us. With more thoughtful and comprehensive community involvement, the possibility of the fifth child returning to the Seder Table becomes a reality, which fills me with hope about our Jewish future.


Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Obama, asking ‘mah nishtana?’ answers that it’s his last White House Passover


President Barack Obama sounded a wistful note in his last Passover message as president.

“Mah nishtana halailah hazeh?” said the White House statement released Friday, hours before the start of the holiday, using the Hagadah’s phrase, reserved for the youngest child at the seder meal, who asks “Why is this night different from all others?”

“For Michelle and me, this Passover is different from all other Passovers because it will mark our last Seder in the White House – a tradition we have looked forward to each year since hosting the first-ever White House Seder in 2009,” Obama said in his message.

Obama this year is holding the seder late because he is overseas during the first two nights of the holiday.

The statement sounded familiar notes from past Obama statements for Jewish holidays, linking the quest for Jewish freedom to broader civil and human rights themes.

“This story of redemption and hope, told and retold over thousands of years, has comforted countless Jewish families during times of oppression, echoing in rallying cries for civil rights around the world,” Obama said.

“We dip the greens of renewal in saltwater to recall the tears of those imprisoned unjustly,” he said. “As we count the 10 Plagues, we spill wine from our glasses to remember those who suffered and those who still do. And as we humbly sing ‘Dayenu,’ we are mindful that even the smallest blessings and slowest progress deserve our gratitude.”

He signed the message, “chag sameach,,” the Hebrew for “Happy Holiday.”

Earlier this week, Obama on April 18 also marked “Education and Sharing Day,” a declaration presidents have issued since the Carter administration in honor of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

Obama cited Schneerson’s “tireless devotion to extending access to education to more people — regardless of their gender or background.”

He cited among his presidency’s education initiatives expanding access to early childhood education and a proposal to make two years of community college available to those who work for it.

“The Rebbe’s lifetime of contribution imparts a reminder of the tremendous importance of making sure every child has the tools and resources they need to grow, flourish, and pursue their dreams,” Obama said in that statement.

Passover frenzy grips Jerusalem market


Passover eve, for observant Jews, is the deadline of all deadlines, a day by which all surfaces, all cupboards, all shelves have to be scoured and cleansed of anything that even may allude to a leavened product.

Passover Eve, for many Jews, is the day in which dough becomes kryptonite.

In Jerusalem’s bustling central market, which, apart from the dark uniforms of elite police corps members standing vigilantly by some corners, their hands lightly resting on their weapons, appeared to be unaffected by the violence that has visited this city since October, 2015, an intriguing scent of something burning, maybe something baking, replaced the more common scents of grilled meat and sweet chocolate rugulach.

What was that aroma? It was Biur Chametz, [the destruction of leavened food products] an act described on the website of the Lubavitch movement, an ultra-Orthodox organization, as “Chametz's Final Moments.”

Chametz, a word derived from the Hebrew root of the word “ferment,” is the term used for any leavened product, which is strictly prohibited during the seven days of Passover, a festival commemorating the Jews’ escape from Pharaoh’s Egypt, with nary enough time to bake up a burnt, too-crisp flatbread. [Editor’s note: 18 minutes after water touches grain fermentation sets in and for Passover purposes, the food item become “chametz.”]

“Chametz may be eaten until the fourth hour of the day,” Lubavitch counsels aspiring keepers of the flame. “After that, only foods that are kosher for Passover are eaten… Since even a minute amount of chametz is prohibited, we carefully rinse, brush, and floss our teeth, to ensure that we really have gotten rid of all the chametz within us.”

The souk (shuk, locally) is Ground Zero for Jerusalemite Passover shopping and general holiday preparation, with many of its stalls adorned with seasonal pink garlic, its dark green leaves woven into stands, the heads the size of baseballs.

Basher, the world-famous cheese emporium, has been kosher-for-Passover for a week, replacing the flaky, buttery brioches and crunchy baguettes with French-made “Matsot” [plural of matzah] imported with an eye on the thousands of French immigrants and visitors crowding the markets alleyways.

Every year, Basher mixes up a quarter of a ton of haroset, the sweet paste made of fruits and nuts that is  served at the Passover dinner and represents, in its color and texture, the mortar used by the Israelites when enslaved in Egypt.

David Basher, one of the owners, who is named after his grandfather, who founded the establishment, told The Media Line that his version of haroset, which is composed of dates, walnuts, almonds “and a good amount of wine — actually, several crates of one of Israel’s best wines” — was almost gone. About ten small tubs of it could still be found behind the counter, where they were going for $15 for what appeared to be a few tablespoons. In Basher’s iteration, haroset resembled royal jelly more than grouting.

The entire market has been gripped by a frenzy. Some bakeries, for example, one standout, Duvdevan, had just set out mounds of coconut macaroons and chocolate mousse rectangles on what appeared to be sterilized, white display shelves. “We’ve been ready for the past hour,’ one worker told The Media Line, appearing still to be out of breath. On the other side of the spectrum, Marzipan, a favorite bakery of English-speaking Jerusalemites and American tourists was preparing simply to shut down for a week, the requirements of Passover preparations being too onerous to match.

Not everyone was thrilled by the flurry of activity. One woman at the counter of a health food stall with bags of potato and spelt flour, waiting to pay, asked  the cashier with some irritation why the salesman had just informed her “it’s not ‘kosher for Passover,’ but you can get it anyway; also, it doesn’t require nipui,” the sifting demanded by religious law. “Why can’t I get my stuff without getting a religious talking-to?” she asked. The exhausted salesman replied only that most of his customers “are coming in here and making us crazy with all the specific demands.”

Alexander Turner, a man visiting from Oregon, told The Media Line he found “the religious atmosphere to be a bit stifling. “It’s surprising, actually,” he said, mentioning that when at home he attends synagogue services every Sabbath but found “the constant mentions of religious tasks even on radio talk shows oppressive.”

A bit like Christmastime, back home? “Maybe,” he allowed, smiling. “Something like that.”

Yanky Eischler, the owner of one of the market’s most popular coffee spots, Rpasters, was preparing a keg party for Thursday night, “outside, in the alley, to get rid of whatever is left of our beer.”

Beer, while not leavened, is not permitted during Passover under strict orthodox observance because it is the product of fermented grains.

Fermented fruit is accepted, allowing for the consumption of wine during the holiday, most notably the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder, the meal marking the first day of the holiday, which begins on Friday.

Wine was the subject of particular scrutiny by Naftali Magozi, a religious gentleman stocking up on provisions for his family, who pointed at a Passover classic—Papaouchado wine cookies—the lace-like tea biscuits Israelis of all stripes wait for year-round and wagged his finger in a clear “no.”

The wine cookies are as mysterious as they are yearned-for in all weeks other than Passover. Made only of flour, sugar, wine (10%) oil and eggs, they boast the highest grade of kosher-for-Passover certification.

Yet, men like Magozi, unsure that wine, in fact, cannot under any circumstances leaven the wheat flour in the manner that water would, consider them untouchable. “I’d never take that home. I have no idea what they taste like. Never,” he said. “It’s only an Ashkenazi thing.”

As Passover approaches, longtime OU kosher supervisor sounds alarm on Manischewitz


Three days before the beginning of Passover, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a veteran mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for the Orthodox Union (OU), filed a lawsuit against Manischewitz and the OU, saying he can no longer stand behind the kosher status of the Manischewitz products he has supervised for 20 years, including its Passover matzos.

“I believe this is a breach of public trust. I just couldn’t handle it,” Horowitz told the Journal on April 21, two days after he filed suit in the New York State Supreme Court.

Within the kashrut world, and particularly when it comes to Manischewitz, Horowitz is seen as a knowledgeable authority. The OU website’s “Getting to Know Your Matzah” article — which gives the ins and outs of matzah kashrut — was written by Horowitz, and he has been interviewed on numerous occasions by major news outlets as a source for Passover kashrut in general, and Manischewitz specifically.

Since 2014, Manischewitz has been owned by Sankaty Advisors, an arm of the private equity giant Bain Capital. In March 2015, when The New York Times’ “Dealbook” section published an article on Manischewitz’s ownership, it quoted Horowitz praising Sankaty’s executives for having “shown a concern for kosher in a special way.” When contacted on April 21, a spokesperson for Bain Capital referred to the Orthodox Union for comment.

Horowitz now alleges, however, that since 2009, Manischewitz’s 200,000-square-foot plant in Newark, N.J., has intentionally bypassed OU kashrut guidelines on several occasions, and that the OU consistently did not support him when he raised concerns. In his lawsuit, Horowitz says OU personnel told him the OU was “feeling pressure within the kosher food industry” because it had lost some accounts to other kosher certifiers.

Horowitz also alleges that when he told the OU that the Manischewitz president warned him that his “job would be in jeopardy if he did not lower kashrut standards,” the implicit message he received from the OU, his employer, was that he needed to “keep Manischewitz happy.”

Both in the lawsuit and in the interview with the Journal, Horowitz listed specific incidents he thinks the public should be aware of, and he said he left the job in December because he could no longer in good faith stand behind OU’s kashrut seal for Manischewitz.

Manischewitz manufactures hundreds of items year-round, and is a massively popular supplier of Passover items such as matzo, wine, gefilte fish and macaroons.

Manischewitz has not yet responded to a request for comment, but the Orthodox Union released the following statement:

“The allegations in this suspiciously-timed lawsuit are entirely without merit, and we will contest this matter vigorously. We certify that the Kashrut of Manischewitz is today, and has always been, at the highest level. Consumers can confidently rely upon the integrity of the Kashrut this Passover and throughout the year.”

Among the most recent of the alleged kashrut violations is from December 2015, when Horowitz says Manischewitz accidentally ran a non-Passover product on its Passover macaroon line, contaminating the entire line, according to OU standards. Horowitz alleges the plant manager did not tell him or other OU personnel about the contamination, allegedly tried to kasher the equipment himself and then continued production. Horowitz said that when he found out about the issue and reported it, the OU excluded him from its investigation and then concluded everything was fine.

The day after the plant manager had done his own koshering of the line, it caught fire, Horowitz alleges, “because there was chametz residue remaining in the ovens.” Nevertheless, Horowitz says, Manischewitz shipped that line’s macaroons, with OU’s kosher for Passover seal, and OU neither issued a recall or a public alert.

In the suit, Horowitz also says that after 18 years of supervising the silos from where the Passover flour was shipped, that duty was stripped from him. And after receiving one particular 40,000-pound delivery of flour, he had to reject it because the containers the flour was shipped in were wet, a clear Passover violation because once flour and water mix, it must enter the oven after no more than 18 minutes.

“I was being kept in the dark,” Horowitz told the Journal. “I was the guy for 20 years, totally in charge of the entire operation. I was the arbiter. If I didn’t know about something, then there’s something very wrong, because I was hired to be in charge. I’m the one that’s expected to say that it’s kosher.”

Horowitz left the Manischewitz plant in December and has not done kashrut work since. He’s suing the OU and Manischewitz for, among other things, defamation and infliction of emotional distress, which he said resulted in him having to take medical leave, the specifics of which are “stress related.” He’s still employed by the OU but said it stopped paying him one week after he left, and recently stopped paying for his medical insurance.

“[There is] no question that that stress relates to all of the aggravation that I felt that I had to fix what was broken and needed to be addressed,” Horowitz said. When asked why he filed the suit just before Passover, Horowitz said it was his last resort after many attempts of trying to resolve his concerns without going the legal route.

“I filed this complaint with great sadness,” Horowitz said. “I have gone way beyond the call of duty trying to get their attention, begging them to address these issues — they and the Manischewitz company. I only went forward with this lawsuit when people that I sent to intercede told me you’re wasting your time.”

Horowitz said he had hoped that those people, who he said are prominent and reputable but that neither he nor his attorney, Arnold Pedowitz, would name, could help resolve Horowitz’s objections to OU’s and Manischewitz’s kashrut standards at the Newark plant.

He declined to answer whether there are any specific Manischewitz products he won’t eat this year for Passover, but said that when he left in December, the degree of the problems in the possible kashrut status of Manischewitz products “was exceedingly severe.”

“To tell you that I know that the things on your plate are no good, I can’t tell you that,” Horowitz said, adding, though, that he also “can’t tell you it is good” since he’s no longer there to supervise.

“The only way I can keep that job is I have a certain amount of certainty that that thing is good. I didn’t have that certainty,” Horowitz said. “I could not in good conscience go into Passover knowing there are people who would look at products and say, ‘If Horowitz says it’s fine, then that’s good enough for me.’ ”

 

Obama to host late Passover seder this year


President Barack Obama will host a Passover seder this year, but not on either of the nights it is required according to Jewish custom.

A spokeswoman told JTA that Obama will host the seder next week following his return from travel overseas.

Obama will be in Saudi Arabia on the first and second nights of Passover, Friday and Saturday, attending a regional cooperation summit.

Obama joined a seder organized by campaign staffers in Pennsylvania during the hard-fought 2008 primary season, when he first ran for president. Since then, he has made it a custom to hold one in the White House, and include among his guests Jewish staffers and backers.

Bring a story to your seder


Passover seders can be noisy affairs. Gather families and friends together for a festive meal and, invariably, people will gravitate toward the lively art of random schmoozing.

They’ll schmooze about Trump, Clinton, Kobe, AIPAC, J Street, Bibi, Iran, family gossip, community gossip, Jimmy Kimmel’s spoof videos, how Facebook is taking over our lives, Trump again, which colleges the kids got into … and, if they can squeeze it in, how our ancestors were liberated from slavery 3,300 years ago.

Reading the text of the haggadah is also no guarantee that the conversation will focus on our ancient story. That’s because the haggadah itself doesn’t read like a story — it’s more of a compilation of commentaries, blessings and exhortations with a few plot lines thrown in.

Maybe that’s why, in recent years, creative types have developed countless variations of the haggadah to fit just about any theme you like, from social justice to Hollywood to the environment. I can see why these new haggadot are so popular — you get to spend the seder night honoring a cause or cultural idea of your choice, while connecting it in some way to the theme of the Passover holiday.

This year, however, I would like to suggest a simpler idea to make our seders more meaningful, one that works regardless of the haggadah you use.

It’s an idea that honors one of my favorite causes: telling stories.

Here’s how it works: Over the course of the seder, everyone at the table gets to tell one inspirational story about someone they met in the past year.

Preferably, it will be about a person who falls outside of your social circle — someone who doesn’t vote, pray, live or think the way you do. In other words, a “stranger” who moved you or opened your mind in some way.

If you plan to do this, let people know ahead of time so they can think about their story. If a guest asks, “Can I bring anything?” just tell them, “Bring a good wine and an even better story about a stranger who moved you.”

The real question is: How many of these stories do we each have? How often over the past year have we left our bubbles to engage with strangers? 

Passover reminds us that we can easily be “enslaved” in the comfort of our own social circles. When we’re called upon to lean sideways during the Passover meal, I see it as a reminder that the strangers we so often ignore during our busy lives are off to the side somewhere. We must lean sideways to notice them and hear their stories.

We often think of strangers as vulnerable souls who need our help. But they can also be fellow human beings who need our ear, or whom we need to hear. It’s not enough to feed the stranger; we must also show interest in their stories. 

Stories add meaning to our lives. And let’s face it, an essential purpose of Jewish holidays and rituals — whether we’re feasting under a sukkah or fasting on Yom Kippur or gathering around a seder table — is to make our lives more meaningful.

The Passover seder, which calls on every generation to relive the foundational story of the Jewish people, is an ideal place to share little stories of human connection. After all, it is millions of little such stories that have sustained our epic journey since we were liberated at Sinai.

The thing is, though, we’re not the same flock of Jews who trekked through the desert 3,300 years ago. We’re still one people, but we’re a people with a million different stories.

We are the most diverse Jews in history. Here in America, we have Jews from virtually everywhere. We have different denominations, ethnicities, traditions, histories, accents, ideologies, neighborhoods, foods, music, views of God, different everything.

We are so diverse, in fact, that we have become strangers in our own eyes. Our little stories live on, but inside our little bubbles. It’s true that some of our differences divide us, but others can unite us, especially if they arouse our curiosity about our individual stories.

This year, for example, a Reform temple in Beverly Hills, Temple Emanuel, will celebrate the ancient Sephardic tradition of Mimouna on the last night of Passover. They will be doing what my ancestors did in Morocco for centuries. Cultural appropriation at its finest. 

So, while we schmooze about the usual stuff this year and remember our ancient story, let’s add meaning to our seders by bringing the stories of the strangers in our midst. Let’s liberate our bubbles.

All we have to do is look sideways.

Happy Passover.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

5 seder supplements to make your Passover relevant this year


We get it: Most Jewish families don’t yearn to make their Passover seders longer.

But there’s an entire world of seder upgrades and supplements out there providing myriad creative ways to freshen up the age-old tale of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and — perhaps more significantly — make it relevant to our complicated, modern world.

You don’t need to be a scholar. You don’t even need to be particularly resourceful or ambitious — all you need is Internet access. Dozens of Haggadah supplements put out by Jewish organizations in recent years have addressed a variety of present-day social justice issues such as civil rights, poverty, hunger and genocide.

Below we give your our top picks for supplements that will give your seder a social justice reboot.

1. Refugee crises (HIAS)

The Passover seder famously celebrates the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt — so it’s a perfect opportunity to raise awareness on modern-day movements of people.

The Syrian refugee crisis is perhaps the most discussed humanitarian issue of the past year. And HIAS, “the world’s oldest, and only Jewish, refugee resettlement organization,” is using the crisis’ moment in the headlines to shine a light on the plight of refugees fleeing turmoil across the entire globe.

Its nine-page Haggadah supplement compares the story of Jewish flight from Egypt to the stories of modern refugees fleeing places like Congo and El Salvador.

“The Syrian refugee crisis is huge and devastating and the one that’s been most in the American news, [but] there are 20 million refugees in the world and 60 million if you include displaced people who have fled for the same reasons but haven’t crossed international borders so are not legally refugees,” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the vice president for community engagement at HIAS, told JTA.

The supplement also includes a list of 10 plagues facing modern refugees (including “workforce discrimination” and “lack of access to education” — good luck making puppets for those!), as well as an instruction for seder participants to leave a pair of shoes by a doorstep to symbolize that Jews have historically “stood in the shoes of the refugee.”

2. LGBTQ Jews (Keshet)

Less than a year after the Supreme Court case that declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide, LGBTQ rights are again a hot topic. North Carolina enacted a law banning anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people — drawing the high-profile ire of Bruce Springsteen — and Mississippi is poised to pass a law that would allow businesses to refuse serving LGBTQ couples.

Keshet, a nonprofit working to promote the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life, has created a six-page “LGBTQ Celebratory Passover Resource Guide” that’s ripe for conversation this year.

Playing off of the traditional four children section, Keshet offers descriptions of four ideal LGBTQ “allies” to discuss, from the one who “asks what LGBTQ means” to the one who “comes out as an advocate to move equality forward.” The online, printable guide also includes its own list of 10 plagues —”apathy in the face of evil,” “envy of the joy of others” — and essays aimed at prompting discussion.

3. Human trafficking (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

The Reform movement’s political outreach arm has produced nearly 10 Haggadahs and seder supplements over the past few decades, but its newest one focuses on the “illegal trade of people for exploitation or gain.” The supplement explains that over 20 million people, including 5 million children, are victims of human trafficking each year.

The Religious Action Center’s new six-page Haggadah supplement urges users to “remember that slavery didn’t end in Egypt, as many people around the world are victims of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.”

There’s a reading for the urchatz, or the ritual handwashing, portion of the seder, as well as an alternate blessing over the fourth cup of wine — “To truly address slavery, we cannot just free individual slaves but must also address the root causes of poverty, prejudice, and inequality that make slavery possible” — as well excerpts from texts on human trafficking by the likes of New York Times writer Nick Kristof.

4. Sexual assault on campus (Hillel International/It’s On Us initiative)

The past year has seen the emergence of some pretty scary statistics: At least one in four undergraduate women experience sexual assault at school and two-thirds of all college students say they have been harassed on campus. The issue made its way to the White House, and Vice President Joe Biden trumpeted the problemat this year’s Academy Awards.

Hillel International and the White House’s It’s On Us initiative, which was launched in 2014 to increase awareness about sexual assault on campus, have teamed up to produce a one-page Haggadah insert that poses discussion questions linking the Passover theme of freedom with the topic of sexual assault.

The first questions ask about personal freedom (“When is a time that you have not been free?”) more generally before getting into some darker specifics: “How does the reality of sexual violence impact how you experience freedom?” and “Have you intervened to help someone become free from a situation or potential situation of sexual violence?”

5. #BlackLivesMatter (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice)

This supplement may have been written for Passover 2015 following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but it is no less relevant today.

#BlackLivesMatter activists have made headlines forinterrupting events throughout the past year held by presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. In general, tensions between the African-American community and local police forces across the country remainuntenably high.

The #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah extension provides alternate readings — For karpas: “The saltwater represents the tears of our ancestors in Mitzrayim,” it reads. “This year may it also represent tears of Black parents and families mourning the loss of their Black youth at the hands of police brutality” — as well as interesting essays, mostly written by Jews of color, including one on the traditional African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses.”

But the Haggadah doesn’t just raise provocative questions, it supplies statistics on police activity in places like New York City and Ferguson, Missouri. (Here’s one for NYC: “Between January 2004 and June 2012 the police stopped, questioned or frisked 4.4 million people.”)

NY mosque hosts seder for Jews, Muslims


Some 100 Jews and Muslims participated in a Passover celebration at a Manhattan mosque.

Coordinated by the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, the gathering took place April 14 at the Islamic Society of Mid Manhattan in New York, News 4 New York reported.

“I don’t believe anything quite like this has happened in New York before,” said Rabbi Allison Tick Brill of Temple Emanu-El, a large Reform congregation in Manhattan.

“It is particularly powerful to celebrate Passover here at this mosque because unfortunately, Muslim Americans are made to feel strangers in their own country,” Tick Brill said at the event, according to News 4.

“Isn’t it beautiful to have our Jewish brothers and sisters in the mosque?” Imam Ahmed Dewidar said. “I think we should be proud of our community here in New York.”

At the pre-Passover seder (Passover begins at sundown on April 22), tables were set up on the floor, each holding its own seder plate.

Participants read from a custom-made haggadah, which consisted of both traditional Passover texts and modern additions such as Bob Marley’s reggae classic “One Love.”

Michelle Koch, of the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, told News 4, “There’s so much hatred and prejudice going on in the world, because people are afraid of each other and are ignorant of each other. So I think as a committee, you bring people together. You teach people about each other.”

Nabil Ezzarhouni, also of the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, said that at the seder, “There was a happiness that could not be translated into words.”

“It’s not just about Jews and Muslims, it’s about the whole society,” he said. “We want to set a standard, and we want to give an example to not just America, but to the whole world.”

A haggadah for a ‘New World’


Ilan Stavans, whose “The New World Haggadah,” illustrated by Gloria Abella Ballen, has just been released by Gaon Books, feels the time has come for the diversity of the modern Jewish experience to be reflected in the haggadah we read at our Passover seders. Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and author or editor of many books and poems dealing with Jewish and Latino history and culture. “The New World Haggadah” is his interpretation of the Passover story, and it includes many of the holiday’s traditional elements along with varied voices from the multicultural, global landscape. 

Jewish Journal: Why another haggadah? What makes this one different from the others out there? 

Ilan Stavans: The mandate we have as Jews is for the story of the Exodus from Egypt to be retold every generation. The real haggadah, the one belonging to all of us, is always blank, its pages ready to be filled out. As a Mexican Jew who immigrated to the United States, for years I have felt a more diverse, more pluralistic, inclusive delivery was needed. When I turned 50, I told myself: This is your time. “The New World Haggadah” is meant for American Jews in the 21st century. It connects us with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, with Sephardic and Ashkenazic cultures, with the Holocaust and terrorism, with the civil rights era, with the Americas as a whole, with the endurance of the State of Israel, and with Yiddish, Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic. This is a haggadah about Jews as eternal immigrants.

JJ: This haggadah retains the construction of the traditional format, but between the explanations of various symbols or reciting of the Ten Plagues, you have included some very powerful poetry. How did you decide what poems to include, and do you intend for the poems to be read aloud at the seder?

IS: The beauty of the Passover seder is that it features elements from the past, the present and the future. It has poetry, politics, folklore, Mishnaic commentary and references to pop culture. My hope is that “The New World Haggadah” will open a new world for readers who will see our heritage through a multilingual prism. I wanted to feature medieval and renaissance authors, resistance in World War II, crypto-Jews and activists during the Dirty War in Latin America, songs of protest and songs of hope.

JJ: Your ancestors were Polish immigrants to Mexico, the country where you grew up before coming to the United States when you were in your mid-20s. It seems like you are embracing both sides of your heritage here, and also including references to other ethnic groups that are still seeking freedom in various ways. As American demographics change, are you hoping that this new haggadah will be embraced by a more multicultural Jewish world?

IS: American Jews are no longer a homogenous minority; we come in all colors and from all corners of the world. “The New World Haggadah is inspired by the maxim e pluribus unum [Out of many, one].

JJ: Tell us a little bit about the artist, Gloria Abella Ballen, and how she conceived the beautiful drawings and paintings that enliven the text.

IS: She has done a superb job marrying image and word. This is a haggadah for all ages.

Lisa Silverman is the Library Director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

North of Paris, a beleaguered Jewish community dares to seder


After three firebombs hit the synagogue of this poor and heavily Muslim suburb of Paris, municipal authorities advised the local Jewish community to lower its profile.

Like dozens of attacks on French synagogues since 2000, the January 2009 incident at the Chabad House of Saint-Denis, which did not result in any injuries, was believed to have been Islamist extremists’ retaliation for Israel’s actions – that year against Hamas in Gaza.

“We were told by the mayor from the Communist Party that it would be prudent if we tone down our activities at least until things calm down in the Middle East,” recalled Yisroel Belinow, who runs the Chabad House here with his wife, Rivky, and his brother, Mendel.

“We had absolutely no intention of complying,” he said.

Instead of laying low, the Belinows that year produced Saint-Denis’ first public community Passover seder, starting an annual tradition. Members of this besieged congregation say it succeeded because it reflects their unity in the face of rising anti-Semitic violence.

Each year since 2009, the Beth Chabad of Saint-Denis — a small building under constant army protection — welcomes about 100 congregants for a group seder dinner. It is led by Belinow, an introverted and soft-spoken man, and his more outgoing and older brother.

“It’s the best answer we could come up with to the attack,” Belinow said.

On the evening of Jan. 11, 2009, assailants ignited and hurled firebombs into the Chabad House kitchen. The fire charred the dining area but failed to catch because of a quick intervention by Mendel Belinow, who was inside the building. Belinow said police found 15 unignited firebombs in parts of the building, including a children’s play corner. No one was convicted in the attack.

“The attack lasted an instant and made an impression for a few weeks. But the seders — they’re now an annual event that’s part of the definition of this community,” Belinow told JTA during a community event last month in Saint-Denis.

Saint-Denis’ 15,000 Jews are all that remains of a community that was halved after the 1980s, when many left for more affluent and safer areas. Jewish emigration from Saint-Denis increased in 2000 amid a surge in anti-Semitic attacks. Gradually estranged from areas where it became unsafe to wear a kippah, the Jews here joined a quiet exodus that has depleted Jewish communities north of Paris.

With 100 guests, attendance at public seders in this drab suburb is relatively high for France. The Chabad House of Toulouse, where 23,000 Jews live, gets similar and even lower attendance, which sometimes leads to the event’s cancellation. And in Nice, where 20,000 Jews live, some 120 local Jews attend the local Chabad House’s public seder, which is being prepared for the fifth consecutive year.

Group seders are less popular in France than elsewhere in Europe because it has a predominantly Sephardic community with “close family ties and a tradition of hospitality,” said Avraham Weill, a Chabad emissary and chief rabbi of Toulouse. “People get invited to family seders, lowering demand for a public one.”

Some of the Saint-Denis seder guests are poor Jews with no family in France, including Mordechai Elbaz, a 60-year-old former dope dealer who lives in a moldy two-room apartment. He plans to attend the seder this year with his only relative – a sister, who is on a visit from Israel.

Other Saint-Denis congregants choose the public seder over a family setting. Caroline Wildbaum, 47, a regular at the Mendels’ Chabad House, has attended Saint-Denis seders with her four children, now aged 15 to 22, since the first year.

“I have a rather large family, so it’s not like I come here not to feel alone,” said Wildbaum, who lives in the nearby suburb of Sarcelles, a municipality known as “little Jerusalem” for its Jewish community of 60,000. “Having a seder here doesn’t subtract from the family atmosphere, it amplifies it.”

She added: “None of Sarcelles’ synagogues offer this feeling of unity and family.”

The Chabad House is now the only synagogue in Saint-Denis, which once boasted four. Drugs are sold openly at a local train station. Young, jobless gang members loiter there. In November, two suspected terrorists were killed here in a police raid on alleged perpetrators and accomplices tied to the terrorist attacks that month in Paris, which killed 130 people.

During the raid, the Jewish community of Saint-Denis went into lockdown for a few days. But true to his institution’s ethos, Mendel Belinow vowed activities would only “increase in volume,” starting with a public lighting of Hanukkah candles the following month.

At the Chabad House, congregants exchange hugs, kisses and back slaps. They call each other by their first names and address one another,  including the rabbis, with the less formal pronoun “tu.” Wildbaum sometimes teases the Brooklyn-born Rivky Belinow by calling her “my sister the princess” while playfully imitating her American accent.

Many credit the Belinows with generating this atmosphere.

“Mendel, with his fiery speeches and warm hugs, sets the tone,” said Ascher Bouaziz, a physician in his 60s who has worked his whole professional life in Saint-Denis. “Yisroel is more reserved. His administrational skills keep the place ticking. And Rivky, her charm and sweetness just melts everyone who meets her. That’s the secret to this place.”

Yet some connect the social cohesion also to the external threats, which are “making Jews seek comfort in a community where members have exceptionally strong ties to one another,” according to Irene Benhamou, a 59-year-old mother of two. “When you are surrounded by people who want to kill you, you find less time for bickering and formalities.”

Her youngest son was threatened with a knife on the street last year in what she said was an anti-Semitic incident. It made her decide to move four months ago to Noisy-le-Grand, an affluent eastern suburb, but she still comes to Saint-Denis for community events.

For Bouaziz, this year’s Saint-Denis seder may be his last. Next year he is planning to join the 20,000 French Jews who have immigrated to Israel since 2014.

“I don’t feel safe here,” he said. “When I retire I want to live where I can wear my kippah without inviting attack and army protection.”

But Yisroel Belinow wryly jokes about the security arrangements at his synagogue.

“At every seder, there’s one extra on top of the guest list,” he said of the prophet Elijah, for whom room is traditionally left at the seder table. “The only difference here is that we have Elijah plus four French Legion soldiers.”

Seder lessons for the High Holy Day services


For the greater part of the last decade, my wife Rachel and I have led communal Passover sedarim and services, as well as High Holy Days Services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in Manhattan. The first seven years of leading services were geared towards unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in lower Manhattan under the auspices of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE).

Our inaugural High Holy Day Services were conducted in Manhattan’s iconic Puck Building. We had no idea what to expect. Through aggressive street marketing, parlor meetings and word-of-mouth advertising, more than 150 unaffiliated young Jewish professionals pre-registered to come and pray with us. In addition to the explanatory services, we held festive holiday meals that engendered a sense of warmth and community. For many, this was either their first Jewish experience in many years — or possibly their first Jewish experience ever.

During the subsequent years, our holiday services grew in both content and attendees, as did the necessary organizational resources. The greater number of young Jewish professionals being served demanded a greater investment on our part as far as time, energy and finances. It seemed that our efforts spurred greater attendance and in turn a greater opportunity to engage on an ongoing basis, to turn a once a year holiday into an ongoing connection of regular meaningful Jewish experiences.

We were beginning to form a community.

Our goal was to create a yearlong, ongoing and permanent community of young professionals connected through their common desire to develop their Jewish identity. We prayed together, shared apple martinis together, and discussed the meaning of teshuva, returning to ourselves and to Jewish tradition. Each year a healthy number of participants from the High Holy Day Service would return to pray with us on Shabbat, join our Shabbat table at home and became “core” members of our burgeoning community. They would identify this community as theirs, find relevance in the explanations and leave the services feeling inspired, recharged and energized. This smaller group would come not just once each year, but regularly, to our weekly classes, Shabbat dinners, volunteer programs, holiday parties and other programs.

Yet, the majority of the participants did not return to pray and many didn’t come back for other programs and events. These “High Holy Day Jews” experience some Jewish guilt or for a multitude of other reasons, only come to one service each year — and that’s it. They don’t want more Judaism in their lives. Once each year seems to be the maximum. Despite best efforts to lure them back more often, enticing home-cooked Shabbat invitations, personal emails or Facebook messages, they had made up their minds that neither I, nor the Jewish identity we were offering, would play a role in their lives beyond that once-per-year visit to synagogue.

Initially, this decision would pain me greatly and this low retention rate would cloud any personal feelings of success. Yet over time, as our community began to grow and our weekly classes, monthly Shabbat dinners, parties and retreat participant numbers remained steady, I became complacent with this reality. I turned a blind eye to it. My plate was full. Thank G-d. We certainly had a healthy flow of interested Jews.

As summer began to fade into autumn and High Holy Day planning began, my whole outlook had changed — I knew going into it that for many, no matter what we did or didn’t do, they were not coming back until the following Yom Kippur.

I had an epiphany, however, during a post-Passover conversation with my friend and colleague Steve Eisenberg, co-founder of Jewish International Connection of New York, on the past year. As had become our custom, we were sharing stories, comparing experiences and suggesting tweaks for future years, and then he said something that altered my entire perception of this challenge. He too faced a similar difficulty in his efforts. I learned that the issue wasn’t the apple martinis or the break-out sessions during the service — it was the holiday service experience itself.

Let’s face it, even though our service is engaging, explanatory,  and experiential, peppered with questions and interaction, it is still a prayer service.

It was then that I realized that the Passover Seder, filled with experience, relevance, joy, melodies, tradition, socialized through hands on ‘direct contact’, should inform our services. The Seder is able to touch people’s souls and speak to them in ways that many synagogue-based services never can.

That being said, there is a lot the Passover seder can teach a synagogue service. With the summer soon over and the Holy Days, lurking, Synagogues will soon be filling-up for Rosh Hashanah Services, Yizkor memorial and Kol Nidre night. Here is a Passover inspired checklist, is your High Holy Day Service Kosher for Passover?

1. Is it relevant? In the advertising industry, relevancy is everything. Before purchasing anything, a consumer asks himself, “Is this relevant to me?” Knowing this, advertisers then decide upon focal points in their advertising to connect their product to potential customers. The Passover seder experience is inherently more relevant to Jews of all walks of life than a synagogue service. For instance, the seder incorporates daily activities such as eating and discussion, in which everyone, regardless of affiliation or denomination, participates; it centers around the idea of freedom, a universal concept that most agree is a basic human right; and it provides a social atmosphere, which humans crave, where you are expected to make comments, meet your neighbors and learn about Judaism in a non-judgmental environment.

2. Is it interactive? Our Passover seder table is super-interactive. Overlooking the obvious regular interaction between food, wine and stimulating discussion, our table includes lots of “edutainment.” From the many costumes, role plays, games, marshmallow guns and decorations, the entire seder is interactive in every definition.

3. Is it user-friendly? Have you ever been to a seder that did not include step-by-step instructions? Instructions are key. The expert and the novice are both warmly welcomed and no one feels out of place. The instructions provided throughout the seder level the playing field, embracing all those around the table equally.

4. Lastly, is it modern? There is no secret sauce to Jewish continuity. Intermarriage, assimilation and apathy are rearing their ugly heads in many new areas. Yet, if the next generation is able to accept the Jewish traditions from the preceding generation, we will be able to maintain that tradition, which has remained intact through millennia. In order to keep young Jewish professionals, who often by necessity live fairly secular lives, interested in Judaism, one must understand the ways Judaism and secular culture have changed and find the best way to keep Jewish culture whole without impinging upon secular culture.

Passover and the High Holy Days are arguably the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays; however, the average Jew in the United States today has not been given the basic skill set necessary to access our tradition. Synagogues are there to provide access to our rich and living heritage, but synagogues must take that responsibility in stride and use all the tools in the arsenal to attract the next generation.

Rabbi Daniel Kraus in an orthodox rabbi, entrepreneur and marketer who uses his gift of innovation and creativity to reach and engage affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Rabbi Kraus currently serves as a Rabbi and the Director of Community Education at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Daniel has been living in New York for the last 10 years and has been heavily involved in a range of Jewish organizations. Together with his wife Rachel, Rabbi Daniel has built a vibrant community of previously unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in the midtown Manhattan area, with over 7,000 people from diverse backgrounds participating in their programs over 7 years. Follow him at @rabbidkraus.
 

At Cannabis Seder, Bob Marley tunes and a blessing over the weed


This seder included a legal disclaimer.

“The cannabis products at this Seder are available to OMMP cardholders only,” the sign at the check-in table read, referring to the state of Oregon’s medical marijuana program. “All others consume at your own risk.”

The fine print explained the facts: While Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana use last November, the measure wouldn’t take effect until July 1. Portland’s district attorney had vowed not to prosecute in the meantime, but the message was clear: If I wanted to get stoned on pot chocolates, the hosts of the country’s first official Cannabis Seder bore no responsibility.

Heading into the airy warehouse where the third night seder was held, I ran into Roy Kaufmann, one half of the married couple behind the evening’s festivities. Roy – a seasoned activist – co-founded the advocacy group Le’Or, which since its founding last year has worked to put marijuana legalization on the Jewish communal agenda. (JTA profiled the organization in February.)

The Cannabis Seder for a New Drug Peace —  billed as a place for “an honest Jewish conversation about topics we were taught were strictly taboo – about drugs, race, and justice,” marked Le’Or’s inaugural event. (Kveller, earlier this month published an April Fools post “Blazin’ Seder: How to Incorporate Marijuana Into Your Passover Celebration.”)

But the Le’Or event, which brought together about 50 people, was no joke.

Seated around reclaimed hardwood tables, seder-goers passed bowls to celebrate Oregon’s newfound cannabis freedoms, and twice sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” along with a vocal soloist. (“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.”)

When it came time to begin the seder and say the blessing over the wine, a new tradition was added to the service: reciting the blessing over the weed.

In the absence of a prayer for cannabis, Kaufmann – author of the Drug War-themed Haggadah that guided our seder – borrowed from the Havdalah ritual. The prayer  — “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, the king of the world, who creates myriad fragrances” —  traditionally recited over the fragrant spices at the close of every Sabbath became the defacto ganja blessing.

“Given that cannabis is one of the most fragrant of spices,” the seder book read, “this is a fitting blessing for tonight’s celebration.”

The evening’s major sponsor and president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company, David Bronner, was seated at my table, along with his partner in hemp activism, Adam Eidinger. Eidinger had flown in from Washington D.C., where he led last year’s successful campaign to legalize recreational marijuana use in the nation’s capital. (Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company provided seed money to found Le’Or.)

Other seder guests included Marsha Rosenbaum and Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance – a driving force behind marijuana legalization efforts nationwide – and Diane Goldstein, a 53-year-old retired police lieutenant from Rendondo Beach, Calif., who traded in her badge to speak out against the Drug War. The ongoing four-decade “war” has resulted in prison time for an unprecedented number of Americans convicted of drug-related crimes.

At the Le’Or seder, while some Passover rituals were left intact – the washing of the hands, for one – most were subject to reinvention. Even the seder plate looked different from all other seder plates: As a symbol of freedom and protest, a marijuana leaf had been substituted for the usual piece of lettuce.

By the time the seder meal (wild-caught salmon) was finished, glass Mason jars previously stuffed with Oregon’s Finest sat empty, and the spread of dark chocolate truffles “made with full extract cannabis oil,” according to the Leif Medicinals label, had been plundered.

What remained was a sordid array of hemp wick, unopened jars of cannabis butter, and a room full of activists who committed to ending America’s Drug War in the name of the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam, or building a better world.

Tradition meets Hollywood at annual Spago Seder


Actress Lainie Kazan, restaurateur Barbara Lazaroff and singer Melissa Manchester lit candles on the evening of April 4 at Spago Beverly Hills, prompting Claudia Cagan, a Hollywood producer and Manchester’s sibling, to wax nostalgic for a moment.

“My mother used to do that and never told me what she was doing,” Cagan said of the lighting, seated at one of the many tables at the restaurant’s 31st annual second-night Passover seder, which raised approximately $10,000 to $15,000 for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, according to Lazaroff, co-owner of the Wolfgang Puck restaurant. 

Cagan was among the approximately 230 attendees at the evening, which was open to all — seating for adults was $190, and $80 for children. 

Run as a traditional family seder, it featured a menu of gefilte fish made from carp, pike and whitefish; chicken-liver mousse; chicken and vegetable soup with Judy Gethers’ matzah balls; braised beef short rib “flanken”; roasted wild salmon with ginger-almond crust; ratatouille and roasted Moroccan carrots; and a selection of deserts that included a “Menagerie of Macaroons.” Live music was provided by Cantor Ruti Braier of University Synagogue of Irvine, serenading with acoustic guitar, performing numbers that included the song “Web of Women,” along with singer Carol Connors and the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir and more. 

Held in one of the city’s finest restaurants, the seder began at approximately 6 p.m. and continued past 11 p.m. 

A paperback of the Silverman haggadah was at each place setting in the restaurant’s open-air dining area. Participants did everything from dipping their pinkies into the wine glasses and letting fall onto their plates a drop of red wine for each of the Ten Plagues, to munching on matzah — shallot and thyme matzah, that is. 

Executive chef Lee Hefter, chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, chef Justin Katsuno and executive pastry chef Della Gossett prepared the meal. 

Throughout the night, Lazaroff mingled, making her way from table to table, saying hello, embracing the likes of Kazan’s granddaughter, Bella Kazan.

“We have a number of celebrities here tonight, but I think of everyone as a celebrity, Lazaroff, wearing a sequined dress, said as she strolled the restaurant’s courtyard. 

Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of University Synagogue led the proceedings, sprinkling a self-aware humor about the seder into his shpiel

“Just like our ancestors did,” he said of waiters who passed warm Japanese towels to each of the participants to use during urchatz — the hand-washing  segment of the seder. He instructed each guest to wash the hands of the person to his or her immediate right (which meant that I was washing my mom’s hands). 

The event has come a long way. Lazaroff began the event in 1980, at the urging of Spago regulars, as a way to ensure that people like her would not be alone during the holiday. 

Lazaroff said that this year’s was the largest group the event has ever had.

At the seder, Lazaroff spotlighted MAZON’s crucial work, telling the crowd that the Los Angeles-based nonprofit has given out grants totaling more than $73 million for hunger-relief programs and policy work since its inception in 1985. Lazaroff said the organization helps many, including the low-income elderly,  who often must choose between life-saving medicines and food. Funds raised by MAZON can help empower seniors to have both, she said.

“We’re very proud of the partnership with Spago and delighted that Barbara continues to host the seder to benefit MAZON and the work we do to fight hunger,” Cari Uslan, director of development at MAZON, said in a phone interview afterward. 

Lazaroff spoke to the Journal about the preparation that the event requires, saying she closed the restaurant for the night to accommodate the affair. This was no small matter, given that the second night of Pesach took place on a Saturday this year, Lazaroff said. 

Guests appreciated the effort. Manchester — who recently released her 20th studio album, “You Gotta Love Life” — said Lazaroff deserves props for organizing the lavish seder year after year. 

“This becomes an extension of Barbara’s family and friends, and an extension of her heart and [she is] bringing her community close to MAZON,” Manchester said in an interview. “And the food is fantastic.” 

Attendees included Todd Krim, president and CEO of The Krim Group. The former attorney, who now connects celebrities with charities, attended with Matt Cook of the Tyler Perry television series “The Haves and the Have Nots,” and others. At one point, Lazaroff told the room that there were eligible bachelors in the crowd, signaling toward Krim’s and O’Connell’s table. 

The crowd was not exclusively Hollywood, however. Mitchell Flint, a U.S. Navy veteran who, despite laws that make it illegal for Americans to fight on behalf of foreign nations, flew with the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 War of Independence, turned out with his son Michael. However, even those two apparently aren’t completely immune to the allure of the entertainment industry: Michael Flint is currently working on an Israeli Air Force documentary titled “Angels in the Sky,” due out in 2016, for which Connors — according to a recent Times of Israel report — contributed a song. 

Among the participants who described for the Journal their favorite Passover memories were Marc and Louise Sattler of San Pedro, who were seated with Manchester and Kazan. Marc Sattler kept it real, if simple: “The seder, and getting the family together for a seder.”

White House seder includes Ashkenazic, Sephardic traditions


Moroccan charoset balls, savory holiday brisket and carrot souffle were on the menu at the annual White House seder.

The guests finished the meal with raspberry ganache marjolaine and triple layer chocolate macaroon cake, according to the White House.

The guest list for Friday night’s seder was not made public. It is the seventh time that President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, have hosted a White House seder.

Susan Barocas, a Washington-based filmmaker and foodie, served as guest chef for the meal alongside White House chef Cris Comerford, according to the White House, to create the meal that incorporated both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. The meal included dishes prepared by family members of several of the seder’s attendees.

In recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Obamas “joined their guests in performing the Seder rituals and followed the Haggadah’s command that we see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from Egypt. And they acknowledged how this story has inspired generations of Americans in the struggle for civil rights,” according to the White House.

Obama issued Passover greetings on Friday to those celebrating Passover in the United States, in the Sate of Israel and throughout the world.

“The story of the Exodus – the signs and wonders that appeared when hope seemed lost, the Jewish people’s abiding belief that they would one day reach the Promised Land – has inspired countless generations over the years. It inspired Jewish families to hold fast to their faith, even during times of terrible persecution. It inspired young civil rights leaders as they marched across an Alabama bridge in search of their own Promised Land, half a century ago,” Obama said in his message.

“And it continues to inspire us today. Tonight, my family will read the passage of the Haggadah that declares we must see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from Egypt. The Exodus reminds us that progress has always come slow and the future has always been uncertain, but it also reminds there is always reason for hope.”

How your Seder should conclude


Passover is the beginning….

Do you know the concluding words in the Passover Haggadah?  In many ways, they are more important than the beginning words.

The central message of Passover is that God liberated Israel from 430 years of Egyptian slavery, and that all humans have the right to live in freedom.  We tell the story to remind ourselves, and to teach our children, of both the sacrifice our people made and that God freed us from oppression.  

At the Seder, after telling and teaching the history of our people, the Passover meal commences. For many of us, however, the evening concludes once dinner is finished. That’s not, however, where the evening ideally concludes.

The Seder ends with the words: L’shana haba-ah b’yrushalayim (next year in Jerusalem).  One might understand these words literally, in the hope that next year we actually will celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.  I would suggest another meaning.

Jerusalem is not just a physical location; it represents the Jewish spiritual and moral epicenter. It is an ethereal concept, which we should aspire to incorporate into our religious lives.  Concluding our Seder with “Next Year in Jerusalem”, implies that we are on an ongoing journey to a deeper connection and level of Jewish understanding.  In other words, next year, may we be more spiritually and morally committed as Jews.

In other words, we were liberated from the shackles of Egyptian slavery for the purpose of “becoming Jerusalem”.

Commencing on the second day of Passover we count the next 49 days leading up to Shavuot; Shavuot commemorates the moment when God gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We literally “count the days” from the holiday of liberation, Passover, to the holiday of the receiving of the Torah, Shavuot.  That the two holidays are so deeply interconnected is yet another reminder that our liberation from slavery was just the beginning of a very long and meaningful journey.

Rabbi Woznica is a rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple

On Pesach, to resort or not to resort?


God miraculously rescued the Jews from Egypt — so the old joke goes — only to see Jewish mothers slave around the house cleaning and cooking in preparation for eight days of Passover.

Or not. 

At least not anymore, not for the many Jewish families who can afford to have someone else prepare the chametz-free environment and delicious leaven-free meals American Jews require over the holiday, doing their best to serve meals that help guests forget the dietary restrictions Passover demands.

And so Jewish families pay — a lot, often upward of $10,000 per couple — to attend all-inclusive, mega-deluxe Passover resorts as far away as Greece and Italy and as near as Las Vegas and Southern California. These Passover getaway programs can be so large that the arriving Jews (many from colder climates, mostly Orthodox) take over entire hotels for more than a week, enjoying a nearly 24/7 buffet of freshly carved meats, sushi bars, expensive (kosher for Passover) wine, hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans, boating expeditions, scholars-in-residence, prayer services — you name it.

Ellen Katz, a Los Angeles mother of four and grandmother of two, will drive with her husband to Henderson, Nev., a suburb just outside Las Vegas, for the Katz family’s seventh annual Passover reunion at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa for a deluxe holiday program put on by World Wide Kosher Tours, a Los Angeles-based company; rooms this year start at $6,500. 

“We only go away once a year, so this is our only vacation,” Katz said. “It’s nice to go away with your family and not worry about the food-buying. Everything’s in one place, you have entertainment, you have shiurim [Jewish classes], they give babysitting.”

And for someone who never had the Jewish summer camp experience while growing up, Katz said her annual Passover getaway has allowed her to develop some of those seasonal friendships that resume every Passover, just where they left off the previous year.

“I never went to camp,” Katz said, “but like those campers, I have Pesach friends.”

And, of course, there’s the family reunion — an important element as two of the Katz children live in New York and most of Katz’s cousins and relatives live between there and Boston. The annual tradition of cooking for and hosting children, siblings and cousins became exhausting and stressful, so they joined the 1,000-plus Jews, many from Southern California, who do the Lake Las Vegas experience for Passover.

“There’s nothing better in life if you’re healthy,” Katz said about her annual Passover vacation. “I miss nothing at home.”

Just down the street from The Westin, another Passover program — this one run by the New York-based KMR Werner Brothers and primarily attracting New Yorkers — takes over the Hilton. “Every meal is a course in fine food,” states the website, which also describes the program’s outdoor barbecue, on-site bakery and kosher for Passover grocery store, where families can shop for food to take on off-site day trips.

The Westin Lake Las Vegas

Mel Weiss, 94, a Calabasas resident, said he went to Passover resorts with his late wife, Lillian, and their children and grandchildren almost every year for more than three decades, paying anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 as a couple many years. Weiss, a Passover resort world traveler, has been to retreats in Israel multiple times, as well as Italy, Arizona and, this year, he will be enjoying the holiday with his kids in Nevada.

“Everything is taken care of — the whole shebang,” Weiss said. “If I stay home, I have to kosher the whole house, and I live alone. I have to go away.”

But as with so many aspects of the Jewish world, things as seemingly innocuous and pleasure-filled as a luxury Passover getaway are, if not a source of tension, at least a topic that some rabbis think must be regarded with a degree of concern or skepticism. The problem, though, is that few, if any, Jewish community leaders are willing to be openly critical of the phenomenon of turning what used to be days, or weeks, of intense Passover cleansing into simply writing a check and packing a suitcase.

One local Orthodox rabbi, who emailed with the Journal on condition of anonymity, wrote that he believes creating the intergenerational memories and transmitting the lessons and stories of Passover is made more difficult when it’s in a communal setting, even in hotels entirely filled with Passover-observing Jews. 

“There are no preparations for the children to see and share in,” the rabbi wrote. “And even in those [resorts] that are exclusively for frum use, you have some elements of hedonistic and materialistic excess.” He explained that one reason many rabbis may hesitate to speak on the record on this topic is because some of their members attend these programs or even earn their livelihoods running them.

Elchanan Shoff, 32, the rabbi of Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights, said he and his wife grappled with whether to accept an offer from a Passover program at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego for Shoff to be a scholar-in-residence, but eventually decided to go, in large part because she’s in her ninth month of pregnancy with what will be the couple’s fourth child.

“It worked out really nicely to not have to make Pesach this year,” Shoff said, noting, though, that he, his wife and their three daughters will feel an “empty space” from not enjoying the time with as much family as they would have had they stayed home. “In the end, we realized that being in the ninth month of pregnancy, the cleaning and the cooking might be really challenging.”

Shoff believes each family needs to decide what will create the most meaningful Passover experience — at home or away. 

“If the mother is going to be cleaning for a month, is short-tempered and has less energy to give her children hugs, it’s really a poor choice for them to make Pesach if they can comfortably afford to go to the hotel,” Shoff said, contrasting that with family experiences where “the cooking and cleaning creates wonderful memories.”

“When it’s waiters and it’s not your mother’s chicken soup or your grandmother’s matzah balls, all the little details that make up so much of our life experience is different,” Shoff said. “It’s not worse or better — it’s just different.”

At seder, don’t bite the hand that serves


At your seder, you just might be the Egyptian.

Consider what it means to be an Israelite and an Egyptian in the Passover story. The Israelites have no power and are at the whim of those they serve. And what about the Egyptians? They have all the power, but their morality is tested by how they treat the Israelites in their midst. The Israelites are slaves — the Egyptians control their lives and behavior and direct their choices.  

In many Jewish homes at Passover seder, the meal will be served by non-Jews who are there to help. Of course, they are not slaves, but they are subject to the desires, directives and the treatment of those who are in “power” — those who pay them, determine their work and who choose how to speak to them. We have been embarrassed at times by the way some people treat those who work for them. How often have you seen people be unkind to the very people who feed them, clean their homes, even take care of their children? In such a case, who is the Israelite and who is the Egyptian?

When confronted, the normal excuse for such mistreatment is to say, “But I’m paying them.” So we should be clear — no amount of money entitles one to be a jerk. Such behavior is not a monetary but a human decision. Thoughtlessly injuring another is an aveirah, a transgression.  This does not diminish as income rises. 

Who has not been at restaurants where the server, working hard and trying her or his best, is treated shamefully by the patron?  Such behavior is not only wrong but profoundly un-Jewish.  

Recall the story of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who observed his students wash their hands with copious amounts of water before a meal to demonstrate their piety. When he used a very small amount and was asked why, he explained that he was thinking of the servant who had to go fetch the water from the well, and whose work was made harder by their extravagance. 

All of us have the urge to edit the tradition to suit our preferences. But anyone who reads the prophets and the rabbinic tradition that follows knows that a special burden to goodness falls upon us when dealing with those who work for us or who are poor.  When Amos thunders at the people that they “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” he goes on to ask, in God’s name, “Shall not the earth tremble for this?” (Amos 8:6,8.) No amount of Pesach cleaning will wipe away the stain of abusing someone in your service.  

In addition to the demands of simple humanity, there is an element of self-interest.  I am more careful to be nice when I am wearing a kippah in public. I try not to do anything that would discredit Jews, like get angry or act ungenerously. People who work in Jewish homes or serve at Jewish functions observe the behavior of those whom they help, so it is especially gratifying to hear positive comments, as I often do, about how well people are treated at Jewish institutions or how welcome they feel in Jewish homes. And it is just as painful to hear the opposite.  Communal pride in our tradition and our people should lead us to be particularly careful about being kind to those who work for us.

Most of the people who work at synagogues and Jewish institutions are treated well and speak kindly of their employers. Most of the homes I have visited and the people with whom I interact are, in fact, very solicitous of those who help them. I know of Jewish families that have supported others for citizenship and paid for schooling for their housekeepers’ children, or who donate clothes and other items to their employees. Such actions are befitting the rabbinic description of Israel as a “compassionate people and the children of compassionate people.”

In the Torah, midwives Shifrah and Puah are singled out as heroes. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is deputized to find a wife for Isaac. In Chasidic stories, Elijah would often appear as a wagon driver or even a beggar. Judaism is filled with images of people whose lives are in service and whose souls are exalted. 

Family functions are often fraught. Emotions can run high at holiday time, and nerves are often on edge. There is a temptation to strike out at the people who cannot strike back. And I’m sure Egyptians, when they gave Israelites an extra slap, made excuses similar to those you hear today: “Ach, I’ve had a really tough day.” But of course there is never an adequate excuse for mistreating someone who is subject to your wishes.  

Jews know better than to confuse power with dignity. In our long history, many people have had power over us, but far fewer have borne themselves with dignity. The prophets sought to teach us that we cannot escape responsibility for our own actions toward any other human being.  There is no gradation in being an image of God; the Torah begins with Adam, not Abraham. All human beings are equally God’s children — the one who serves the soup no less than the one who asks the Four Questions.

The seder is a time to teach our children.  As all parents know, what we teach our children comes from our actions more than from our words. If we talk about the deliverance and goodness of God and how we were saved from being under the power of others, then turn to yell at someone who works for us, or keep them until late hours without extra pay, or do not thank and acknowledge them as if they were invisible, our children will see it. They will learn that it is OK to victimize others if we pay them, or if they have no recourse. That is not the lesson of Passover, or what we need to teach our children, the scions of our good fortune. 

This lesson is not limited to Passover, of course. It is equally applicable at the carwash and the supermarket, the hair salon and the restaurant.  At a bookstore with a friend a few weeks ago, a salesperson complained to me that some customers yell at him for charging 10 cents for a paper bag, which is the law and not even a bookstore policy. He thanked us for understanding and being nice about it. I felt good, and not only because my friend and I were both wearing kippot. 

Although kindness matters in every situation, there is a special mandate on Passover, when we celebrate our freedom and understand the peril of being in another’s power. “Let all who are hungry come and eat” sounds ironic if the person who is serving you has not eaten. 

So please, this Passover, when you are in the position of an Egyptian, remember to act like an Israelite. If Elijah does come, he will be proud of you.


Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Jews combating modern slavery, and an anti-trafficking bill that stalls in the Senate


Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s seder this Passover will look and feel somewhat different from those in most Jewish homes in America. As one of the leading figures in American Jewry raising awareness about modern slavery and trafficking, Orenstein and thousands of other Jews are making Passover not just about slavery’s past, but about its present.

For one, her seder plate will have a padlock. Two, she plans to share the testimony of a freed modern-day slave. Three, her table will include some “coupons” to educate guests on the financial side of slavery — how much does it cost to buy a slave? How much to free one? Where should you spend your money on fighting slavery and trafficking?

“Eat an extra measure of maror and explain that there are still people enslaved in the world today,” Orenstein said in a telephone interview from New York. After 18 years as a teacher at American Jewish University and also the former spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles, Orenstein is now the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J. 

An award-winning author and a radio and television guest, as well as an op-ed contributor (including to this publication), Orenstein is now also one of the American rabbinate’s leading advocates for raising awareness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking; current approximations are that 21 million to 36 million people are victims of slavery and trafficking, a wide-ranging estimate because of the illicit industry’s underground nature.

“Millions of people are going to sit around the Passover table and talk about going from slavery to freedom, and they won’t be aware and won’t mention that there are, by estimates, somewhere around 30 million slaves in the world today — 60,000 in the United States alone,” Orenstein said. 

To jumpstart the dialogue on today’s slaves, Orenstein partnered with Rabbi Erin Hirsh of Gratz College and with Free the Slaves — a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and anti-slavery lobby based in Washington, D.C. — on several projects, among them Seder Starters, a new Passover table companion guide (
“Eat an extra measure of maror and explain that there are still people enslaved in the world today.” — Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Seder Starters includes revisions to Passover rituals, such as sitting upright instead of the customary leaning, in order to “remain alert” to those people whose realities are bitter like maror. Orenstein and Hirsh also just launched with Free the Slaves a curriculum of slavery-themed lesson plans for children and adults, in Hebrew and English, written by Jewish educators from across the religious spectrum.

And, until early March, all of this positive momentum to fight the scourge of human trafficking had come just in time for what was expected to be a rare moment of cordial legislative consensus among Democrats and Republicans. But it was not to be.

The “Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015,” a bill that had already passed the House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, appeared headed for bipartisan passage in mid-March when it was stopped by a filibuster by Senate Democrats. The Democrats accused Republicans of sneaking into the bill an amendment known as the Hyde Amendment, which has been attached to spending bills since 1976 and aims to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life. 

Democrats admitted that a Senate staffer had known the language had been included in the bill, but had failed to raise the alarm. The Democrats pointed out that while the Hyde Amendment typically needs to be renewed annually, this bill would only require it to be renewed every five years. 

The stalled trafficking law would add an additional layer to existing legislation that criminalizes human trafficking in the United States. Its main component would create a Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund paid for by $5,000 penalties assessed on anyone convicted of a range of offenses that fall under the umbrella of human trafficking — including slavery and sexual exploitation of minors. The Department of Justice would have the authority to use the fund to issue grants to groups like law enforcement agencies and NGOs with expertise in finding and helping victims of human trafficking.

But given the standoff in the Senate, the bill’s prospects for passage appear low unless five Democrats join the 51 Republicans and four Democrats who are trying to reach the filibuster-proof 60-vote mark, or unless the Republican Senate leadership decides to remove the Hyde Amendment from the bill and, at the same time, convince enough fellow Republicans not to jump ship.

Groups that combat human trafficking are agitated that what they see as a no-nonsense, bipartisan bill (and one funded by fines on convicted sex traffickers, not new taxes or borrowing) has stalled as a result of abortion politics.

“The language was intended to make pro-life donors happy, even if it would have little practical effect,” Autumn Hanna Vandehei, a former Republican staffer and founder of the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking, and Michael Wear, a former Obama administration official, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “What seems most likely is not that Democrats were caught off guard that the language was there, but that this time their favorite interest groups would not accept it.”

Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit that offers pro bono legal services for needy residents of Los Angeles County, said her organization is currently handling multiple human-trafficking cases. Kornberg said Bet Tzedek’s trafficking caseload typically involves domestic workers. 

“The legislation is absolutely necessary,” she said. “It has been our experience both in terms of collection of evidence and in terms of referring cases to us for assistance that those local law enforcement resources are really critical in identifying and servicing victims of human trafficking.”

The law isn’t without its detractors, though, most notably civil libertarians skeptical of granting the Justice Department new powers.

“There’s a real danger in making criminal justice funding contingent on arrests and convictions,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in The Week. Brown is an editor for reason.com, a libertarian magazine. One of her several objections to the bill is that it would give police an incentive to entrap people who pose little threat to public safety but whose convictions could help fill the anti-trafficking fund’s coffers.

Barring an unexpected move in the Senate or a surprise retreat by pro-choice and anti-abortion groups (which could give some Democrats and Republicans, respectively, political space to change their votes), the bill could remain stalled until the Senate turns over in 2016. 

As Orenstein said, “There’s no grand political gain to be made by freeing slaves.”