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Before We Eat, Reflect: Asking our Jewish Leaders Questions

This year we contacted a handful of our community’s leaders and thinkers and prompted them to reflect on what Passover, the most observed of all the Jewish holidays, means to them. 
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April 4, 2023

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” 

Traditionally, the youngest at our seder tables ask this question every year. 

The objective of the Four Questions is encouraging inquisitiveness among children while adding to our own understanding of the purpose of the Passover holiday. Of course, it’s one of many rituals we must endure before we can get to the part of the seder we’re most looking forward to—eating!

Asking questions, however, being a central part of what Pesach is about, ahead of the holiday this year we contacted a handful of our community’s leaders and thinkers—the head of the L.A. Federation, an AJU rabbi who’s quickly become a voice for women Persian Jews in the city—and prompted them to reflect on what Passover, the most observed of all the Jewish holidays, means to them. 

Hopefully, their responses, some of which were edited for clarity, will inspire rich, meaningful discussion around your seder tables this week—and not take up too much time before you get to the brisket.

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Why do we ask four questions during the seder?

At the center of the Seder are four questions. There is, however, also a hidden question. It’s a question that is hard to voice because its weight is heavy on the lips, born of trauma, pain, and disorientation. That question is: Who am I, now? 

With rising antisemitism and our brothers and sisters in Israel embroiled in deep debate about the future of the Jewish state, this question persists. When the antisemites try to define us, will we let them? When we have starkly different views of Jewish destiny, who is right? 

This question of identity is never asked at the Seder, but it is answered again and again. The Haggadah states, “… [I]n each generation, there are those that stand against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed One, rescues us from their hands.” The rabbis teach that every generation faces a great challenge; having faith and optimism in the face of great uncertainty pulls you through. It was the same under Pharaoh’s switch, under the Caesar’s spear, under Hitler’s boot as it is now. Antisemitism and strife in Israel are our great challenges but they will not define us. We are not defined by our challenges, but as the story relates, our capacity for redemption.

“Who are we, now? We are ancient and modern, we are survivors, and most of all we are one nation, and one family ready as always for redemption.” – Rabbi Noah Farkas

Who are we, now? We are ancient and modern, we are survivors, and most of all we are one nation, and one family ready as always for redemption. 

Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, vice president for Jewish engagement at American Jewish University

Why do we read the Haggadah?

The whole haggadah is about parents teaching their children how to ask questions. That’s how you let go of the enslavement. Until you ask questions of the status quo, you’re not able to see a future for yourself and have the emunah, the faith, to get up and leave for a future that’s unknown. The art of asking questions. That’s what Passover’s about. The haggadah is our first curriculum guide as the Jewish people.

Jesse Gabriel, California assemblymember 

Why is this year’s Passover different from all other years’ Passovers?

I’ll be celebrating in Israel with my three young kids. It’s the first time that any of them will be visiting Israel, and I’m excited to show them a country that means so much to our people and to me personally.

What’s your favorite Passover memory?

Passover always brings back amazing memories of sitting around the Seder table with my grandparents discussing current events and the secret to my grandpa’s perfect beet maror. I miss having them at our table, but I always feel their presence at holidays and simchas.

At the conclusion of the Passover seder, we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Where would you like the Los Angeles Jewish community to be this time next year? 

Next year may our community be more united and unified. We live in complex times and face real challenges, but we will be immensely strengthened if we can confront them together.

Gilla Nissan, teacher, author, speaker

What is the primary objective of the Passover seder?

When we say ‘Hallel’ at the end of Passover, we are actually crowning God. The seder is made up of steps to go from narrowness, from slavery, and at the end of the seder, we should be in an expansive, expanded place, and we are crowning God as the king of kings and the master of the universe. The aim of the entire seder is to go step by step and in the end crown the divine to be the leader of the world.

Orna Wolens, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles board chair 

What is the main message of Pesach?

With Passover, this most cherished and meaningful of holidays, Jews throughout the world, manifest both optimism and memory as we retell the story of our people. I marvel at how every Passover is its own moment in time. Every Seder is a journey of discovery and interpretation grounded in tradition, order, and ritual. I am grateful to be a part of a Jewish community and organization like The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that is connecting young people to our cherished traditions, sharing our stories with our neighbors of diverse backgrounds, and providing Seder services and meals to the elderly and most vulnerable in our community.

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