January 22, 2019

Special Education Lessons Learned from the Haggadah

What is the essence of the Seder? Plain and simple, it is a teaching tool.

It’s goal is to teach how the Jewish people became a nation of values and adopted a code of law that inspires us to this day. That is the essence of the Seder.  But it is not what makes the Seder unique.

Do you know that sociological studies tell us that Seder night is the single most observed Jewish practice in the world?  Reform, conservative, orthodox, unaffiliated take part in seders worldwide.  What an audience, what an opportunity!

So how is it observed? It does not take place in the synagogue. It takes place at home. And on this most auspicious night, the entire event is geared to appeal to 5 year olds.  That's right. On this, the best teaching opportunity of the year, what do we get?  A brilliant sermon?  An intellectual discourse? A Socratic or Talmudic disposition on the Jewish people?

None of the above.  Although it is called a Seder, which means “arranged” ” organized” and “predictable” it is anything but orderly.

The protocol of the Seder is completely confusing. There are over 4000 Haggadahs that have been produced over time. If the Seder is so “organized” why so many versions?

We know it is a night of questions. A typical Jewish festive meal starts with wine for Kiddush. The Seder has 4 kiddushes. Why?

A normal story has a narrative that gets to the most dramatic part quickly, in this case the plagues and the exodus, and we would expect the Seder to discuss the escape from slavery but, instead, it starts with a rather obscure reference to Laban, hundreds of years earlier. Why?

The Seder does not proceed in a logical narrative. That is the point. It meanders, darts back and forth between past, present and future. It is a history lesson, a time capsule but it is all jumbled up, filled with abrupt stops and starts with often puzzling jump cuts in the script.

Why? To arouse curiosity, to sustain the interest of…whom?  Of the children, not the adults. And why? Because the Seder and our  Haggadah is not a linear lecture written for adults but rather an educational experience for children.

What we can really learn from the Haggadah is how learning occurs best:

1) The learner feels safe and relaxed (with family, at home)
2) Where the learner learns experientially — through touch, taste, song, humor — the lessons being imparted
3) By doing: dipping your finger in the wine, by searching for the afikoman and so on
4) By asking questions and not by lecture.

So it is a Seder because it is OUT of ORDER.

And it is powerful, impactful, and educational.

Does this remind us anything?  Our special needs family members and friends learn OUTSIDE OF THE BOX. They learn by doing, by role modeling, through touch, taste, song, and LOVE.

As recently as 20 years ago, the question was still being asked: why bother teaching Judaism to people with special needs.  Now of course the question is not WHY but HOW.

And the answer to HOW is wrapped up in the genius of the Seder. If at your Seder as an adult, you became bored and found it to be the “same old same old” look back at it through the eyes of a child.  Of course we could be cute and say get in touch with your own inner child. That is always a good thing. But the real genius of the Seder is that it teaches in a way that all children, special needs and typical, actually learn best.

Happy Passover. Chag Sameach.

Dr. Held is the Executive Director of ETTA. He founded ETTA in 1993. As the visionary for ETTA´s wide range of programs, Dr. Held has led ETTA from a start-up to its current position as the largest agency of its type in the Los Angeles community. ETTA’s mission is to provide programs and services that enable people with disabilities, and the families who love them, to live fully enriched, independent, included and active lives as members of the Los Angeles community. ETTA is a proud affiliate of OHEL Children's Home and Family Services.