Apr 10, 2014

Fwd from JTS CHancellor Arnold Eisen: New Questions for Modern Families - A Passover Conversation

Dear JTS Community:

Passover has been a high point of Jewish families throughout the ages, and remains so in contemporary North America. Celebration of the Passover seder is one of the principle sources of continuity that links Jews throughout the generations and around the world. At the same time, however, we know that the Jewish family today is different in many respects than it has been in the past. The people gathered around our seder tables in 2014 present a new vision of family, one that offers new possibilities as well as new challenges.

At The Jewish Theological Seminary, we are thinking creatively about these changes and how to inspire Jewish families, in all their varieties, to see themselves as part of these age-old and ever-changing dramas of Jewish history. We invite you to join us in raising the questions that need to be asked and answered. Let’s take the occasion of this most special family gathering to focus loving attention on the changing character of our families.

I would like to express my appreciation to Senior Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue and Rabbi David Hoffman of JTS for their help in the development of this Passover seder supplement.

We wish you a sweet and joyous holiday.

Sincerely, arnold eisen signature 2
Arnold M. Eisen
The Jewish Theological Seminary

Modern FamiliesPassover 5774

The sentence in the Haggadah that best captures the goals of the seder evening reads “B’chol Dor Vador” (In each and every generation an individual must feel as though he or she had personally been redeemed from Egypt.)

We are asked to see ourselves—on the most personal level—as characters in the story of the Jewish people. By retelling the Passover story, expounding on it, and relating it to our own experiences, the hope is that we will enter into the story, make it our own, and join the Jewish people’s struggle to redeem the world. The logic goes that if we can write ourselves into our people’s past, we can become authors of our people’s future.

But finding ourselves in the story is not always easy. And if there are impediments to seeing ourselves in this story, the barriers may increase exponentially when trying to see our contemporary families within traditional tellings of the narrative.

Can the modern Jewish family see itself within the continually unfolding story of the Jewish people?

The answer, of course, is that it can and must.

We suggest that, given the variety of Jewish families today, the traditional questions of the Passover seder should be supplemented by others that bring these changes in the nature of the Jewish family to full consciousness, and make the family and its story an integral part of discussion at the seder table.

You may want to ask and answer some or all of these questions:
How does the family around this Passover table differ from the one you remember at seders in your youth?

Are there different cultures represented at your table? Do the members of these cultures relate differently to notions of oppression and freedom, memory and ritual, food and song?

Is everyone at the seder Jewish? Was that true when you were growing up? Do the Jews at your table relate differently to the Passover narrative than others?

Are there Jews-by-choice at your seder table? How did the Passover story figure into their decision to become part of the Jewish people?

Do any members of your family—or you yourself—have difficulty in making the Passover story their/your own? What gets in the way?

Do you feel like an “insider” or “outsider” in relationship to “the Jewish community,” however you understand it? What can the Jewish community and synagogues do to better engage people who see themselves as outsiders? How might you and others at the seder table help this process?

How has your relationship to Passover been affected by your personal or family situation: Your marriage, for example; or your divorce? Your decision to have a child as a single parent? Your coming out as LGBTQ? Your decision to remarry, and take on responsibility for your new partner’s children? Your decision as a Jew to marry someone who is not Jewish? Your decision to marry a Jew?

For members of our communities, these are some of the most urgent questions. The future of the Jewish people depends upon us meaningfully addressing the new questions that address modern Jewish families. They deserve to be answered with the same thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and creativity that the ancient Rabbis brought to the pages of the Haggadah.

The questions that we raise, and the answers that we offer, will determine whether another generation can leave that narrow place we call Mitzrayim [Egypt], and take part in the Jewish journey of redemption.

B’chol Dor Vador: In each and every generation, all our families must feel as though they had personally been redeemed from Egypt.

B’chol Dor Vador: In each generation, it is our responsibility to make a place for every person who wants a seat at the table of the family of Israel, and help them feel personally part of the story of the Jewish people.Print a copy of the Passover seder supplement.

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