Montclair’s Bnai Keshet holds Community Seder
By GWEN OREL
This year’s Community Seder at Bnai Keshet will feature a theme of immigration.
It’s particularly timely, with the president’s Muslim bans being fought in the courts.
And two Bnai Keshet members, Melina Macall and Katherine McCaffrey, are the founders of the Syria Supper Club.
But, Bnai Keshet’s Rabbi Elliott Tepperman is quick to point out, “It should be said the theme is always immigration.
“The Passover story begins with the story of Abraham, who immigrated to a new place. That was his first instruction ever from God: ‘Go be an immigrant.’
“The whole story of Passover is about the Jewish people being abused as foreigners in another place, and making a commitment for all time to make this holiday so we remember what it was like to be abused as immigrants, and to treat other immigrants fairly.
“That is the story of Passover, without adding a single word.”
Tepperman and congregant Marc Gidal sat in the rabbi’s office, upstairs at Bnai Keshet, last Friday, going through haggadot (the prayer book used at a Seder, or Passover meal) to create a Bnai Keshet haggadah for the Seder.
Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, begins on the evening of Monday, April 10. Bnai Keshet’s Community Seder will be held on Tuesday, April 11, when many families hold a second Seder.
You don’t have to be a member of the shul to attend. You don’t even have to be Jewish.
You just have to be “a kind person,” Tepperman said with a smile.
CARING FOR THE STRANGER
While Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue, is the only Montclair synagogue offering a Community Seder, rabbis from other area synagogues agree with Tepperman that immigration is the perennial theme of the holiday.
David Greenstein, the rabbi at Conservative synagogue Shomrei Emunah, in an essay titled “Free Again” for his synagogue’s newsletter, writes that the experience of being liberated must have exhilarating and dislocating: “It is no wonder that sometimes they [the Israelites] appeal to ‘alternative facts’ about how great it once was in Egypt and hanker to go back there."
Reform Temple Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Steven Kushner said that “There’s a reason, theologically, why the Israelites were enslaved. It wasn’t just because there was a bad Pharaoh. The theology is that God wanted us to be slaves so that we would know what it’s like to be the stranger. ‘Care for the stranger’ and ‘remember that you were slaves in the the land of Egypt’ occur more than any other recurring phrase in the Torah.”
EVERYBODY HAS A STORY
Bnai Keshet’s Community Seder is designed to be participatory, a “do-it-yourself affair,” Tepperman said.
It will be catered, not potluck. That way, “everyone can complain about the matzo ball being not correct without offending anyone’s feelings,” Tepperman said.
Gidal, a South Orange resident, said that while this is the first time he’s led a Community Seder, he’s led many with family and friends. Curating the readings is the first task, he said.
“What you quickly learn is that all these haggadot go out of date very quickly. The beautiful artwork and story are still there, but the English translations are masculine, not with the times. Last year I discovered an amazing website, haggadot.com, where people upload their own haggadahs.” The website’s organization, separated by parts of the Seder, such as the Four Questions or the 10 Plagues, allows Gidal to quickly find a reading appropriate for any moment in the Seder. “Every step of the way, we will have a reading about refugees.”
And participants will tell their own stories of immigration, Tepperman added. “Almost everybody in America has a story, especially Jewish immigrants, who often know the people in their family who immigrated and their specific stories.”
“Or they are immigrants themselves,” Gidal said. “If we have Israelis here, they are immigrants.”
QUESTIONS CAN BE FUN
The Seder will also include activities for children, possibly even a play, Gidal said. The rabbi looked surprised. Gidal said he has used congregant Dan Brenner’s “Let My People Go: A Short Play for the Seder” in his own home, and it’s a highlight.
Gidal said, “Everything else is symbolic, meta. This is hands on.”
Tepperman explained, “The Seder is supposed to be different every year, supposed to inspire questioning. For us, we wouldn’t say, ‘you asked me why I’m wearing this crazy hat, we’re done now, just read.’ But we might do something like that, to create the spirit of a salon.”
Responding to questions is part of the Bnai Keshet culture, Tepperman said.
In the spirit of relating to immigrants and questioning the nature of freedom, Bnai Keshet is holding a Havdalah service (saying farewell to Shabbat) of Passover week, May 15, in front of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s New Jersey office.
“We are eager to meet with him,” Tepperman said.
“He’s a member of the community. We would be delighted to have him at the Community Seder.”
Tuesday, April 11, 7 to 9 p.m.
Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue, 99 South Fullerton Ave.
To register, or for more information: bnaikeshet.org, 973-746-4889