By Julee S. Levine
On Pesach, we open the door and proclaim, “all who are hungry, let them come and eat.” We open the door to welcome Elijah, as a sign of hope and faith. The seders I attend each year (and Gd help me if I miss them), open their doors for different reasons. They open the doors of accessibility. It is one thing to be hungry for food to eat, and it is another to hunger for connection, inclusion, and ownership. At these seders, that is why we open our doors.
On the first night of Pesach, my husband, my mother, and I are with our friends, the Glick Family. Over the last 20 years, we have become “framily”, and Mrs. Glick tells me that it isn’t Pesach without us there. We’ve had years where the table was very full, and years where things were smaller and a little slower, but always just as warm and meaningful.
There was the year we got the call towards the end of the seder that Mr. Glick’s mom had died, and the rest of the night was a mix of trying to reach a rabbi, clean up the meal, and let our friends try to adjust to their abrupt and unexpected loss. Their adult daughter, Sari, has become less engaged with formal Judaism over the years, and is a passionate advocate for those who are marginalized, especially individuals with disabilities. Their adult son, Jonah, is on the Autism spectrum, and until recently, had been labeled as “non-verbal.” It turns out that he is a Speller, which means that he can fully express what he wants to say through spelling out his responses using a communication board and partner.
This seder has always been about access and connection. Even in the years that it was assumed that Jonah was at a very low level academically and cognitively, nothing was ever pediatric. As Sari has begun challenging the words and actions of everyone around her, she embraces the need for asking questions. Mr. Glick still hearkens back to much of his Orthodox upbringing, and Mrs. Glick loves to scour the internet (and Haggadot.com) for new thought pieces, interpretations, and additions for their ever-changing Seder.
I love this seder because it is all about open doors and questions. Though the core guest list is the same every year, there are always new additions and there is always room for someone’s plus one or a last-minute friend who needs a place and a space. No question is off limits, and all responses are heard, especially the ones that are verbal. Each year, I leave satiated and still craving more. I don’t need anything else to eat, but my desire to keep discussing, debating, and learning has only just been piqued.
On night 2, we are with our friends Geri & Charles and their extended “framily.” Geri and I met in college more than 25 years ago and reconnected through Facebook, only to find we lived 20 minutes apart. The initial invite to their seder went like this:
I know that you work in Jewish education, and everyone does a long first seder. How about if you join us and do about 20 minutes of something creative and interesting…and I’ll feed you.
So, I sang for my supper, and year after year, I revel in the challenge of bringing new things to the group that are inclusive, engaging, educational, and fun.
Geri is Jewish, her husband is not. They celebrate a lot of holidays in their home, giving each its own space and recognition. Their extended circle includes several people who were born Jewish and who observe in various ways and come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some of the adults are married to partners who are not Jewish and who were not born in America. The guests at the “children’s table” are now in middle and high school.
The seders I craft for this night are based in inquiry and in the issues of the day. One year, I asked everyone to bring with them a symbol of their personal oppression, with the caveat that it had to fit in the palm of their hand. After they were all named, we placed them on a large plate, The Plate of Oppression, and they were removed – uninvited from our seder table. People also reflected that holding that symbol in their hand reminded them that too often, we are the ones who make our own oppressive states bigger than they are or need to be.
I love this seder because it really leans into the “all who are hungry” message. These wonderful people are both hungry for the undoubtedly delicious meal (hello, lamb vindaloo) and they hunger for learning and inspiration. I’m honored to have that be my contribution to the seder. Everyone else brings their specialties…from dinner to haroset to desserts. I bring the soul food…not greens and grits, but the pieces that nourish our souls together and that remind us that the doors should stay open, because all are truly welcome to feast with us.
About the Author: Julee Levine is the Director of Supplemental Education at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, CA. She is a career educator who has worked with almost all ages and stages in a variety of settings. When she is not seder hopping, you can find her engaged in professional development, immersed in sports, and competing on game shows (four and counting). She feels strongly about gefilte fish (jarred), matzo balls (firm), and horseradish (red).
Author’s Note: The names have been changed to maintain privacy.