Original photo: Shutterstock
Original photo: Shutterstock
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Building Bridges at Passover

A new initiative aims to fight anti-Semitism one Seder at a time

Marjorie Ingall
March 25, 2019
Original photo: Shutterstock
Original photo: Shutterstock

A new initiative called 2 for Seder has a catchy slogan: “Pushing back on anti-Semitism with love and matzah.” The premise: Invite two people who’ve never been to a Seder—non-Jews in particular—to come to yours, “with the intent of building bridges and creating understanding about our Jewish values,” in the words of its creator, Marnie Fienberg.

Our texts and tradition are passionate about welcoming the stranger. “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Leviticus says. “Do not oppress the stranger or the poor, and do not plot evil against each other in your hearts,” Zechariah says. The Seder itself is a performative storytelling event about the experience of being the Other, during which we open our door for Elijah to express the hope of ushering in a messianic age of kindness, peace, and refuge. One way to pitch in on the creation of such a world is by not being strangers to each other.

Fienberg came up with the idea for 2 for Seder while in mourning for her mother-in-law Joyce, who was murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue this past October. “It was still during shloshim [the first 30 days of mourning] that I realized I’d put on 12 Passovers but had never done it without Joyce,” she told me in an interview. “Joyce was very detail-oriented about Passover. She’d check in with me in December or January and she’d start with the guest list—in theory my house should only fit around 20 people, but we usually had 25 or 30—and she’d say, ‘I’ll be making this many matzo balls, half whole wheat and half regular.’ My father-in-law had celiac and for a while she did a gluten-free matzo ball, which is a disgrace, and she gave up and did noodles, and thank God. Go that way if you’re gluten-free.” Fienberg still has the last batch of her mother-in-law’s matzo balls—made for Rosh Hashanah—in her freezer.

Over several hours “and three boxes of tissues,” Fienberg came up with a call to action as well as a way to memorialize her mother-in-law. Noting that Jews are the subject of more than half of religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S., according to 2018 FBI statistics, Fienberg—a strategic communications contractor for the federal government—wanted to create something that would reflect Joyce’s welcoming way of looking at the world.

“Joyce was a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh,” Fienberg said. “Whenever she hosted Passover or Rosh Hashanah or Thanksgiving, she invited her students, her coworkers, people who weren’t family, people who weren’t necessarily Jewish, from all over the world and from all walks of life. It always changed the dynamic and the discussion around the table for the better. And I thought, what if there were 1,000 Seders across the country and Canada—Joyce was Canadian—and what if 2,000 people came who didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish, and they went away going, ‘Whoa, I’d like to know more,’ and maybe even, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to my Easter dinner?’ We can learn about each other, and we can go back and forth on the bridge.”

If you go to the 2 for Seder website and click the “participate” button, you’ll receive information for hosts and guests about the Seder, about Passover itself, and about the history of anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, including a section by Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life. Notes for the hosts include sample questions that might be discussed during the Seder, and a tip sheet from the ADL offers advice on how to speak to kids about anti-Semitism. But there’s no prescribed way to conduct the Seder itself.

The instructions are simple: “Do what you normally do for a Seder. This means your family traditions. For example, if your family puts on a play to act out the Haggadah, then do your play. If you and your family prefer a shorter service, you and your family should carry on with the shorter service. We want our friends to participate and have fun!” That’s it. Participants are encouraged to share their stories after Passover on Facebook and Twitter.

If there’s enough interest, Fienberg hopes to make 2 for Seder an annual event. Since the site launched a few weeks ago, volunteers have signed up in 27 states and Canada.

One host is Briley Newell, a senior at Emory University in Atlanta. (She talked to Tablet as she was headed to read the megillah at shul for Purim.) “My family is really into the Seder,” she said. “We do a full musical production and storytelling and write our own Haggadot every year—it’s a big deal.” She invited three classmates from three different faith traditions. “The shooting in New Zealand happened during our spring break,” she said, “and we discussed how the reactions in the two countries have been very different, but in both cases the Jewish community was there for the Muslim community and the Muslim community was there for the Jewish community, and that’s comforting.”

“One of the core concepts of Pesach, especially today, is that while we may exist in relative freedom, others don’t,” Newell continued. “A major lesson from Moses is that in early parts of the narrative he’s complacent and complicit in systems of oppression that he’d be subject to but that his place keeps him out of, because of his own particular privileged position. You always have a responsibility to be sure the people around you have the same privileges as you do. At our Seder we often talk about people who do not have freedom. I think the focus will come back to anti-Semitism this year, as well as the things that other minority cultural and religious groups are experiencing in this time in this country.”

Xavier Sayeed will be one of Newell’s guests. “I’m Muslim, and I saw that it was really important that our two communities have a relationship in light of recent events in the world,” he told me. “It’s more important than ever that we support one another, to make the world a better place, a place full of peace. When Briley told me about the project, it really resonated with me. It’s an important gesture to show that we’re committed to understanding one another beyond ‘I know you’re different’—it’s ‘let’s be willing to sit together and listen to each other.’”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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