Beating back the homesick blues on Passover, with a little help from some fellow expats.
“I call it ‘The Orphanage’,” Elad Kabilio laughs. He’s referring to a conglomerate of borrowed tables, each a different height, which — when pushed together and camouflaged by a white cloth — becomes a large seder table. Surrounded by 20 to 30 mismatched chairs, it takes up the entire living room in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. “It’s where people without their families come.”
Kabilio, a 29-year-old musician and Israeli expat, hosts a traditional yet free-spirited seder. Guests include friends, friends of friends, the neighbors from across the hall and a bunch of strays. They are Israeli Americans, American Jews, non-Americans and non-Jews — the more diverse the merrier, Kabilio says. Most do not know each other. They’re united only by the Hebrew/English Haggadot they’re reciting from, and by the fact that they are all far away from home.
“When you’re living apart from your family, the only way to get through the holidays without breaking your own heart is to become part of a new one,” Kabilio explains.
While attendance at Kabilio’s seder forms organically and rather randomly, this year one of the guests arrived by a different route. The new guest is an implant, a shidduch of sorts, carefully grafted to Kabilio’s “orphanage” through a large-scale social experiment now taking place within New York’s Israeli community.
“When we first began to organize, we asked Israeli community leaders in New York: ‘What community needs are still unanswered? What are the Israelis of New York still missing?’ “One of the major naeeds came up was connecting with other Israelis, especially around a holiday,” says Pazit Levitan, vice president of Moatza Mekomit, an umbrella organization for groups serving Israelis in the greater New York area.
With the recent wealth of institutions and Hebrew-speaking programs catering to Israelis, and with social media making communal gatherings such as The Orphanage more common than ever, one might assume that the market for Israeli seder solutions is already saturated. But Levitan clarifies that while the options are many, they often don’t fit.
“The seder is about feeling at home, feeling like you’re part of a family,” she explains, “but even with all the options, people often find themselves celebrating Passover in an environment that doesn’t suit them and that they’re not comfortable in. They end up more homesick than ever.”
Celebrating the seder with American Jews, for example, is likely to make an Israeli, especially a newcomer, feel out of place. Secular Israelis celebrating in Chabad houses often feel the same. So might a family with kids that ends up sharing a table with a crowd of 20-year-olds, or a peace activist in a room full of pro-settlers, or a vegan at a table laden with nothing but derivatives of meat and eggs. Nearly every Israeli expat has stories of such comic-tragic situations, and most would rather skip the holiday altogether than risk going through them again.
To give Israelis better odds in the holiday roulette, Moatza came up with “100 Chairs,” a program that “aims not only to match Israeli hosts and guests for the seder, but to match them correctly.”
First, word of the program is spread through the Israeli grapevine. A volunteer task force of community leaders, each from a different borough or neighborhood, then collects the calls from their respective constituencies, gathering a database of people willing to open their homes to new guests, and of guests looking for a home that will host them. Next, both prospective parties are asked to fill out a questionnaire as meticulously detailed as an e-Harmony profile, inquiring about their professions, religious affiliations, kosher and dietary restrictions, marital status, if they have kids and if so, how many and how old and what gender.
For the final stage, members of the task force interview the candidates over the phone, “feeling out their vibes” and factoring their own intuition into the host-guest matchmaking.
All this may seem a little excessive for a one-night encounter. But Levitan notes an enjoyable seder is just the initial goal: a careful match, based on important things people have in common, could outlive the holiday and evolve into lasting friendship.
For the project’s first run, last Rosh HaShanah, Aya Shechter, director of the Israeli Center at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J., and a part of the “100 Chairs” task force, volunteered to host the holiday meal. She was matched with a young couple, Noa and Yoni Leiterdorf, who lived nearby and have a 1-year-old daughter, same as Shechter. The two moms bonded over dinner, and soon became friends.
In January, Noa gave birth to her second child, a boy. Tragically, on that very day, her father back in Israel passed away.
With a newborn to care for, Noa couldn’t fly out to attend her father’s funeral. Her mother, who was supposed to come and help with the baby, now couldn’t make it. Torn between joy and grief, juggling work, a toddler and a newborn on their own, the couple was at wit’s end.
When Shechter heard of her friend’s predicament, she called on Tenafly’s Israeli community to help. The community responded: people began flowing into the Leiterdorfs’ home, bringing food, helping with cleaning, feeding and errands, and giving the couple a sorely needed chance to regroup.
Drawing from this experience, Shechter is now developing a JCC program that would support Israeli couples that are having a baby, and have no family here to help them. It’s called “The Tribe.”
Of course, she’s still part of the “100 Chairs” task force, to which she and Noa are now a living testament. “This is how we first met, and now we’re good friends; we’ve been through a lot together. … Participating in this program again feels like a closing of a circle.”
For his seder this year, Kabilio was matched to a 28-year-old woman who arrived from Israel a few months ago and is working as a translator at the United Nations. I’m immediately worried for her. Will she fit in?
“When I used to go to strangers’ seders, I never liked the feeling of being ‘a guest,’” Kabilio says. “Not knowing people, feeling like I had to work hard to make a good impression on them, it was always a little stressful.” That’s why in his house, he tries to make things different: “I want everybody here to feel not like ‘guests,’ but like this is where they belong, this is their home away from home,” he says.
So whomever this “new orphan” turns out to be, he assures me, by the second cup of wines she’ll be feeling like part of the family.
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