Passover Seder Losing Steam As Key Marker Of Affiliation

Observers gnash their teeth as attendance at ritual meal drops; young Jews want DIY Passover.

04/09/14
Staff Writer
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Brooklyn’s Avital Chizhik says many young Jews are turned off by the “Orthodox language” of many seders. Avital Chizhik
Brooklyn’s Avital Chizhik says many young Jews are turned off by the “Orthodox language” of many seders. Avital Chizhik

Monday night will be a typical weeknight for Sam Biederman.

After he finishes work as director of communications at the New School in Greenwich Village, he may head to the gym for a workout. Or go out for drinks with friends. Or watch some TV at home.

The one place he won’t be on the first night of Passover is at a seder.

“It’s not a big thing” in his life, he says. Biederman, 30, who is from Chicago and now lives in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, says he went to family seders at his grandparents’ home as a kid. “A very casual sort of event — pretty short.” His family was unaffiliated. Their seders had a secular, political bent. At the end they’d sing the National Anthem and some Yiddish songs.

“The message of the holiday was about freedom and liberty — American values,” Biederman says. But he found the seders uninspiring. He stopped going once he left home to attend college. “It wasn’t an event that spoke strongly enough to me to make it a regular part of my life.”

Biederman isn’t alone. A growing number of American Jews are seder dropouts; others, particularly members of the émigré community, never went in the first place.

According to statistical and anecdotal evidence, attendance at a seder was once a near-mandatory part of Jewish life in this country, even though the seder might be heavy on socializing and light on reading the Haggadah. As late as the 1990s, most surveys indicated that some 90 percent of American Jewry attended a seder.

The numbers have dropped since then. A majority of American Jews still keeps Pesach on its calendar, with seders easily outranking such practices as synagogue attendance or keeping kosher; but it’s a much smaller majority.

According to many national and regional studies of the Jewish community, between 60 and 70 percent of American Jews now go to a seder. The 2013 National Jewish Population Survey: 68 percent. The 2013 Pew Forum report: 70 percent. The 2011 UJA-Federation Jewish Community Study: 69 percent. The Jewish Federation of Atlanta’s 2006 Jewish Community Centennial Study: 62 percent. In California’s East Bay, which has a reputation as a particularly liberal area, a 2011 study found that exactly half of the Jewish community goes to a seder.

All the surveys report varying attendance rates among various sub-groups; the highest, predictably, is among the Orthodox, the lowest among the intermarried and “Jews of no religion.” But the surveys share the conclusion that the seder, which ranks with Chanukah candles and the Yom Kippur fast at the top of Jews’ observance list, has lost its drawing power and its status as a not-to-be-missed event.

The decreased interest in seders parallels a drop in other traditional markers of Jewish involvement, such as synagogue membership, donations to Jewish causes or simply Jewish self-identification. According to the Pew Research Religion and Life Project’s 2013 survey, barely one-fourth of American Jews view religion as playing an important part in their lives.

Many leaders and thinkers in the Jewish community interpret these numbers to mean that many Jews, in a way unimaginable a few decades ago, are losing one of their last ties to the community. Demographers call a drop in seder attendance a lagging indicator — a late-to-be-noticed sign of a growing disinterest in Jewish life.

The loss “is extraordinarily important,” says Ron Wolfson, author of “The Passover Seder: The Art of Living Jewish” (Jewish Lights, 1996). “The seder is the linchpin of Jewish engagement. It’s the Jewish family reunion.

“My sense is that those who embrace the opportunity to turn the seder into something ‘beyond Maxwell House’ find that their family and guests love the evening,” Wolfson says. “It’s a challenge to the Jewish community.”

David Arnow, author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders” (Jewish Lights, 2011), questioned the recent surveys’ findings — he doubts that the drop in seder attendance is as dramatic as indicated — but says “all of our [Jewish] institutions have to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do better?’”

In response, institutions like the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the Manhattan-based Ohel Ayalah offer free communal seders, the National Jewish Outreach offers subsidies for its Passover Across America initiative, Jewish organizations distribute materials for “creative seders” on contemporary themes, and a growing number of websites offer advice on making one’s own, individualistic Haggadah or holiday celebration: jewishholidaysinabox.com, diptwice.com, haggadot.com and madeitmyselfbooks.com/about/about-my-haggadah.

For many young Jews who feel little connection to “the traditional experience” of a seder, it is “even more important to create new ... do-it-yourself … entry points,” says Amelia Klein, assistant director of Reboot, a Jewish cultural organization whose goal is “to reinvent Jewish traditions and rituals.”

Who’s not going to seders? The list, say experts interviewed by The Jewish Week, includes people who find the seder boring, its readings and rituals without meaning; those who consider the holiday’s theme excessively chauvinistic or paternalistic; émigrés from the former Soviet Union and other once-communist countries who grew up without freedom of religion and never had the chance to attend a seder; people who simply can’t afford to make their own or attend one hosted by a synagogue or another Jewish organization; the isolated elderly who don’t live near anyone who makes a seder; young people who are out-of-town over yom tov and have not received an invitation; singles who feel out of place in a seder’s intensely child-centered atmosphere; and people who say they are too secular or disinterested or burned out to care.

“A lot of [young] people have problems identifying with religion,” says 22-year-old Sophie Kaufman, a student at the New School. She says she and her boyfriend, who comes from a Modern Orthodox background, will not go to a seder next week. She went as a kid, in Los Angeles; “it became repetitive.”

“When I was a kid my family forced me to sit through Passover seders in addition to keeping kosher for all eight days,” Shane Fischer, an attorney in Winter Park, Fla., tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail. “In other words, instead of encouraging me to learn more about my faith while appreciating my cultural history, I resented being told what I could and could not eat. … I refuse to voluntarily participate in a holiday I have such poor memories of growing up.”

“When we were younger, and my grandparents were alive, we’d do seders. But as we got older, and that generation left us, things changed,” says Aly Walansky, who is single and in her 30s and lives in Brooklyn. “Now, I do have dinner with my parents the first and second nights of Passover, but our dinner looks very much like a Thanksgiving dinner — turkey, matzah ball soup, etc. But no siddurs, no Four Questions, no hiding of the matzah.”

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who heads programming for the Moving Traditions educational organization, says some of the guests at his seders “felt they had experienced one [seder] already and didn’t really feel the need to participate in one each year.”

Asked if creative approaches to the seder can bring more people to the seder table, Rabbi Brenner says, “I think they can. The more people that have positive associations with the themes of the festival this year will seek out a table next year. Or better yet, they will make their own seder.”

The seder has a poor reputation in some circles, Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote in a 2008 essay, “The Passover Test,” on slate.com. He told the story of a “professional-looking woman in her 30s,” married to a Catholic man, who wanted to introduce the couple’s children to Jewish life by bringing them to a seder. She talked with the executive director of a Maryland synagogue about the congregation’s communal seder.

“The executive director gave her advice she didn’t expect,” Rosner wrote. “If this is your children’s first encounter with Judaism, don’t start by bringing them to a seder,” Rosner quoted the executive director as saying. “It is long, can be boring at times, and requires a lot of reading.”

A 2009 article in The New York Times Magazine about J Street, the self-described “Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel” lobbying organization that is emerging as an alternative to AIPAC, offered this description of J Street’s 30-something staffers in the words of founder Jeremy Ben-Ami: “They’re all intermarried. They’re all doing Buddhist seders.”

“Our challenge today is engaging young people through different platforms,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “We know that some may chose virtual [seder] services, but our responsibility is to strengthen live, personal contact.” 

Avital Chizhik, 22, the daughter of Russian immigrants and a resident of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, says members of the émigré community were raised with little explanation of the meaning of Passover’s symbols. “It’s a matter of the rituals not being relevant to them. It’s true of any rituals in general.” The language of the Haggadah is often off-putting, she says. “It’s the language of the Orthodox.”

Chizhik, who is, in fact, Orthodox, says her family usually invites to seder other members of the nearby Russian-speaking community. They do the seder in Russian, full of explanations. “We try really hard. That requires preparation.”

Philip Mandel, a 60-year-old “recovering engineer” from Great Neck who now works as a health coach in Oregon, says the “full-blown, takes-forever, Orthodox seder” his grandfather led years ago “didn’t mean anything to me.” Now, no seders. His Jewish friends “raise an eyebrow and shake their heads” when they hear about his Passover non-plans.

Sandra Hurtes, a 63-year-old writer/writing coach who lives in Brooklyn, is a bit nostalgic about her childhood seders. “Our seders were all about Food!” she tells The Jewish Week via email. “My parents were Holocaust survivors. My favorite parts of the seder were drinking wine in a glass etched with reindeers, watching Eliyahu’s [Elijah’s] glass lower, singing at the end of dinner with my father,” Hurtes writes. “Ultimately, after my marriage ended in divorce I questioned my beliefs and God. Also, the insular Seder made me sad. The lightness of my childhood wasn’t there; my reindeer glass was gone. I now stay home and pamper myself with a long drawn-out pedicure or other indulgence. It feels good to treat the evening as ordinary but somewhat special.”

And what about Sam Biederman, the New School communications director — will he find himself at a seder next year? Maybe.

Not this year, though.

But he has his own erev Pesach tradition. “This year I’ll call my grandmother,” he says. “Because I know how to be a good boy.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

04/20/2014 - 19:29

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Well we've been having Seders for the past 40 years and to me they are the greatest moments in the Jewish calendar. True we dropped out for a while post Bar Mitzvah ---but then I was fortunate to be introduced the depth of Judaism by friends and Rabbis and experienced seders of song, discussion, yes ritual but also consideration of some of the fundamental aspects of life. There is so much to talk about -- we stayed up well past midnight back in the day. There are soo many hagaddahs available with so many themes -- really something for anyone who cares about family, discussion, singing, values. I carry to the Seder around 50 p[lus pages of supplementary readings which are expanded each year. And now we have grandchildren and are experiencing the joy of them and their friends as they participate in it all. We can't last quite as late nor have prolonged discussions, but that made up for by the joy of seeing the kids interact around the Seder table. and our seders seem to be getting larger every year and speaking to friends and acquaintances -- the Seder remains for many a key to being Jewish and a very exciting part of their lives. Its sad if so many Jews haven't had this experience and don't see the appeal of the Seder.

I have the SOLUTION:
A new hagaddah, that does a thorough job of hitting the most important elements of the seder, crisply and with meaning, and that can be accomplished in 25-35 MINUTES FROM START TO FINISH!

Only then will we start to see a return to the seder from the disaffected.

Otherwise Judaism is doomed to a dismal future of undue influence of Orthodoxy, driving away even more, in a depressing cycle.

An hour, 2 hour and even longer seder will KILL JUDAISM among those that matter most for its survival, the young seculars.

This is not surprising at all. Adherence to religious belief and tradition is waning in general as generations become less and less dependent on ancient mythology. There continues to be no evidence of the existence of a deity and less need to rely on such beliefs to make it through the day. Furthermore, when any sane adult realizes that the holiday of Passover celebrates God's murdering of innocent children it becomes harder to justify this holiday and the Jewish religion as a whole.

The article doesn't mention that Israel Finkelstein and other Israeli archaeologists are now saying the Exodus was not a historical event, not a migration of Israelites from Egypt. So our young people are really questioning what they have heard from their elders, their teachers, their sacred (but not historic) writings. They think we've been engaging in libel and slander against the Egyptians all these years, and some wonder what deity would kill innocent babies to punish the guilty ( It's un-American!) This isn't just about young people drifting away from a certain ceremony. It's about young people believing we have lied to them, presenting a compelling fable about freedom as if it were our history. And "education" isn't going to solve the problem. The "education" we gave them created the problem.

I'm a South African Jew in my early 30s and most interviewed in this article are too. What hitler never did to our ancestors in the gas chambers we are doing to ourselves. I find this article so sad. As I finish my final Pesach prep today I hope and pray that my children will continue with all these traditions. The Seder is essentially about the children and teaching them about our exodus from Egypt. It is sad that those individuals who had Seders as children never understood this. To all the Chabads hosting Seders - shekach. If it were not for organisations like you and the kiruv that you do - who knows what thoses stats would look like. Chag pesach sameach v'kasher

as someone who endured the "takes forever, Orthodox-laden" Seders at a very young age, i found them to be boring and dreaded having to sit through them twice in a row while my less religious friends and relatives only got to experience it once. i was prone to falling asleep at the table, but my Orthodox grandfather (who i loved dearly despite our differing observance levels) insisted that the Seder had to be conducted properly and that meant everything had to be read. i also got sick frequently due to the dietary restrictions placed on Passover, and not getting enough nutrients for 8 days made me cranky and tired. part of the problem is repetition; if the Seder was limited to one night instead of two, chances are people might be less jaded and more inclined to participate. another issue is lack of creativity and inclusiveness; there are ways to make the Seder meaningful and accessible to everyone (and that includes the intermarried, because they are a part of the community as well as their in-married peers). variety is the spice of life.

"A growing number of American Jews are seder dropouts..."
More to the point, they are dropouts from the Jewish religion and peoplehood (one without the other is unsustainable).

"The fault lies in the failure of the Jewish community that allowed these children to grow up without Torah, God, and Judaism." The community, uh huh. More to the point, their parents lacked a background of knowledgeable and transmittable Judaism. However, it is fairly lame to criticize what cannot be changed, one's own generational experience, when any reasonably intelligent person worth calling a Jew can pursue their personal mix of reading and thinking out and finding out the great depths of current significance that the story of the seder has for us today, which has kept the attention of generations of Jewish people over the ages.

My father had little understanding of the seder, in deed of Judaism, those his parents followed the rituals. My mother was unable to make up for his lack. Like so many others in a situation like mine, I sought out what I found to be the compelling story of our people and faith. So, to the attorney whose comments indicate he could not be bothered to explore Judaism, what other full value system can contribute as much to your family's life as Judaism?

The haggadah has encouraged its use as a core document that is amenable to one´s adding to and select from Jewish and other experiences! Best done without throwing out the window our venerable for "with it" current politics, as in the so-called version published first in 1969 referenced in these comments.

Many worthy comments so far. May I offer a special recognition of Rabbi Mitterhoff's fine contribution.

The story is sad, but after the PEW report this is unfortunately not surprising. Most Jews in America don't get a chance to meet a deep, authentic Judaism that is both full of wisdom and uplifting. Those that aren't Orthodox are already a type of DIY seder and DIY Judaism - which isn't original or independant. There are many Orthodox Jews who learn only the details, the actions of Judaism, but not the soul, the ideals, that are realized through these "rituals". I think of all my sisters and brothers suffering a spiritual hollowing every week at the Western Wall in Yerushalyim.

Steven,

You must not have any Chabad friends on facebook, otherwise you would see a completely different story. In a few days, Chabad Houses around the country will host hundreds of thousands of people at community Seders. This is not an office in NY sending out checks, this is families and volunteers cleaning and preparing meals around the country.
I myself work at a Chabad on Campus. At the University of Delaware we have over 100 students registered for the first night. With walk - ins, which we accept, I expect to host close to 150. These Seders are fun, enjoyable, and engaging. Students love them and look forward to Passover all year. Right now I am scrambling to get more chairs and tables. We have to eat outside, because the crowd is that big.
This experience is replicated across the country. Container Trucks of Passover supplies have been visiting campuses like UF and UI. Look online at the photos of the preparations. They are inspiring.
All of these Seders create memories for the future. If your readers are saddened by the drop off in Seder attendance send a check to Chabad on Campus. Our Seders are creating a future for Judaism in America.

This is very sad. I am as guilty as the younger generation, because it was my parents who had all the Jewish holidays for our family and others. My father always lead the Seder, he passed away 4 years ago and everything stopped. However, I am helping a Catholic friend put on a Seder at her church for the kids. I am a non practicing Jewish women who too has many questions about religion. I don't want to see tradition die and helping my friend is a good experience for me.

Why not a DIY Seder doing it the ORIGINAL way?
Just get a Hagaddah, and follow instructions on how to arrange the seder plate( you know how to boil an egg, wash the maror(the lettuce), mix the grape juice apple finely cut-even just with a knife-and bought ground walnuts), then arrange the components, cook the food(or get kosher take -away).
Sit and read and KNOW it has done something wonderful in Heaven, for HE the Al-mighty does not miss a beat!!!
DO IT!!

The reason Jews do not want to keep the passover seder is because they do not understand what the seder is. They think the seder is a just symbolic ritual, but the facts are that the seder is the expression of the deeper reality of this special passage of time. The seder is the time of our freedom and when performed correctly can actually help free us from our mental and emotional bondage to the false value's imposed upon us by our unhealthy society.

Dated: April 10, 2014
The statistics of the article were sad but true.
The lack of 1/3 of America's Jews in participating
in a seder is part of a larger problem of a lack of
interest in Jewish identity among these Jews.
The only solution for Jews to link with their
heritage and history; not so called relevant
seders. This is the only way as Jews we can
create a core that can survive the corrosion
of assimilation.

ALAN LEVIN

Singing the national anthem and some Yiddish songs and sharing a dinner sounds like a fine reason to get together with friends and family. In NYC where the culture of a generation perfected nonsenical themed parties, including birthdays , 1/2 brithdays, moustaches, monsters and alike , I would have thought that the Sam Biedermans of the world would have perfected one that could possible hold some meaning and memory for the many Jewish and otherwise in Greenpoint in Williamsberg. Come on kids, get creative! I would come to your party to celebrate Passover anytime and so would your grandmother. We already have the moustaches.

It is wrong not remember what happened in the beginning and honor your sacred traditions in the proper manner. Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. It is about freedom. Deliverance. Life. Freedom is a fragile gift--like a snowflake. It can disappear before you know it. It can be taken from you. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." (Thomas Jefferson) PS--The reason we have Monticello today is because it was saved by a Jewish family named Levy. I hope they held the seder there. And Moses spoke for his people--his Declaration of Independence. It is all connected. What we do at this moment in time is no less important.

The Freedom Seder in 1969 freed tens of thousands of American Jews from the chains of the Seder as rote. As the Haggadah itself says, In every generation we must win our freedom for ourselves. As the author of the Freedom Seder, I urge and welcome folks to play with the basic structure to create -- for example --their own debate about the nature of Freedom (instead of the sterile debate about how many plagues there were) and to call out the Plagues of today -- for example, extreme droughts, floods, rising seas, melting glaciers resulting from global scorching brought on us by the Carbon Pharaohs, for example. Read the Song of Songs as the tradition should be done during Passover -- using the Falk or Bloch or Shefa Gold translations! -- and see everyone from 13 to 36 wake up to its earthy and erotic text (and explain how the charoset is really eaten to awaken the tastes of Song of Songs: nuts, fruit, spices, wine). Give life to the Seder, and the Seder will give life to us! Check out The Shalom Center's website -- Good yontif, shalom -- Rabbi Arthur Waskow

who would want to go to a seder with annonymous that says they werent blessed with a true jewish upbringing. he and that approach is the problem he most likely is against the peace process in israel and most likely supports the orthodox establishment in israel that sells itself as the only authentic judaism. who want so be part of a religion represented by that establishment and in addition we were brought up that we were part of the Jewish people and those people have a relgiion
Judaism. You dont have to be a practlicing relilgious jews in order to be a proud involved and caring jew concerned about the fturure of the the jewish people. But
when one follows that laws coming out of the israel knesset and the negative approach to basic individual rights, tints of racism, arrogance and an approach that
says we know it all who wants to identify with those people. So there are caring
involved Jews who say also the themes of the seder are not part of the Jewish experience as indicated by the institutions what seem to be representing the Jewish people. Freedom is for everyone, respect for others and caring about making this a better world and a better society.

sad, but not surprising. Next year in Jerusalem.

This has little to do with Orthodoxy. The subjects of this article were never blessed with a true Jewish upbringing. To them, Passover is no different than an Easter Egg Hunt. There is no embedded Jewish belief that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt and that God personally came and saved them. The fault lies in the failure of the Jewish community that allowed these children to grow up without Torah, God, and Judaism. They have forgotten the God who gave then freedom.

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