For contemporary families searching for an understandable and short Passover observance, books like “60-Minute Seder” and the even more brief “30-Minute Seder” offer the high points of the Haggadah, the Jewish text that explains the ancient story of the Jewish exodus out of slavery in Egypt.
But is that enough time to tell the powerful saga, of the terrible plagues that God brought upon Egypt and how the enslaved Jews left in such haste for the promised land that their bread had yet to rise?
“Every family is different,” said Risa Strauss, religious school director at Tree of Life Congregation on North Trenholm Road. “Some people have just older people (at the Passover table); some have older people and kids. You have to make sure that there is something that every person can connect with. I think the most important thing is that we make it relevant and that people understand their heritage and history.”
Strauss, like Rabbi Hesh Epstein, rabbi at the Chabad-Aleph House, are a little skeptical of putting a time limit on the most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. This year, the eight-day Passover celebration begins at sundown Monday an evening marked by family and community observances.
“It’s one night a year,” Epstein said, of the first night of Passover. It’s a time people should unplug from the modern tyranny of cell phones and 24/7 work obligations and recall not only the ancient story of the Exodus but also consider the existence of slavery in today’s world, he said.
“This is really an opportunity to be fully engaged with something that is really meaningful,” Epstein said. “We are here to learn from the past, to apply the lessons to the present and then look to the future. It’s really what slavery and freedom mean in the 21st century.”
The Seder involves special rituals, readings and Passover songs. At the center of Passover is the Seder plate with foods that symbolize the Israelites’ grinding toil in Egypt — bitter herbs, a lamb shank, a hard-boiled egg, and charoset, a mixture of apples, cinnamon, nuts and wine that represent the mortar used to build the pyramids of Egypt. During the reading of the Haggadah, the symbolism is explained.
Epstein said it’s important to keep the Passover feast relevant and kid-friendly. “We actually invented a board game called ‘Leaving Egypt,’” he said. The game starts with the Pharoah and the Pyramids and travels through the God-sent plagues and the escape out of bondage until game-players arrive in Israel.
This year, those attending the Passover feast at Chabad-Aleph will enjoy appetizers before the ritual Seder begins.
“If you feed people at the beginning, they pay better attention,” Epstein laughed. And Epstein has asked each person attending to bring one item from their home that they would have carried with them out of Egypt.
“What would be the one thing that you would take with you?” he asked them. “Photo albums, your laptop, jewelry, your dog?”
The story of the flight from Egypt after generations of slavery is told in the book of Exodus, the second book in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.
Jews were spared from God’s final plague, the killing of the first-born sons, by marking their doors with blood from a slaughtered lamb so that God would “pass over” them and only slay the sons of their oppressors. Their exodus was made in such haste that their bread had no time to rise so Jews traditionally eat unleavened bread during the Passover time.
Strauss, at Tree of Life, said she teaches the children at her synagogue those powerful stories through songs and skits, so that the community Passover, set this year at Tree of Life for Tuesday, will be truly meaningful.
This year, she has also again planned a women’s Seder for later in the week that will bring together Jewish and non-Jewish women.
“A lot of people come and we will have music and a light supper and talk about being women and mothers,” she said.
There won’t be any time limits, although she is mindful of not keeping congregants out too late.
“The whole point is that the Seder should last,” she said, recalling the lengthy Passovers of her youth. “It’s not a regular meal. It tells the story of the exodus.”
Epstein said he has even heard of an online “virtual Seder” for those who don’t have enough time to attend a Passover observance.
“That,” he laughed, “would really defeat the purpose.”