A Night to Remember: Yachad Makes Pesach Meaningful for Thousands of Israelis
“Diaspora Jews who are not religious are generally much more connected to Jewish tradition and to a Jewish community than secular Jews in Israel are,” laments Alita Mor, a secular Israeli resident of Tel Aviv’s tony Ramat Aviv neighborhood. In a bid to make sure that her children grow up more connected to their Jewish heritage, Mor has been bringing them to the Jewish identity programming run by the local branch of OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity in their community center.
“At the activity before Pesach, for example, my kids had their hands in the flour, rolled the dough and then enjoyed the matzah they made themselves,” she recounts. “Programs like these help us teach our children what it means to be Jewish.”
Hands-on learning activities like the pop-up matzah bakery that Mor’s children attended were run by Yachad coordinators all over Israel, drawing thousands. “In general,” notes Nechama Alcoby, the Yachad Program’s coordinator in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem, “the power of experiential engagement in Judaism is often underestimated.”
Alcoby brought 300 residents of Gilo to an outdoor reenactment of the annual pilgrimage that the Jewish people used to make to the Beit HaMikdash during Pesach. Together, parents and children explored nature, learned history, discussed why we eat matzah during Pesach and strengthened their connection to their Israeli-Jewish identity. “We gave participants meaningful content and a deeper connection to Jewish heritage and to one another,” relates Alcoby. “So many people approached me afterwards to tell me that this was the first time they understood why we do what we do on Pesach.”
Other facilitators ran other types of storytelling activities designed to connect Israeli children and adults to Pesach. “The Haggadah directs us to not only recount the story of the exodus from Egypt, but to actually relive it as if it were taking place to us,” says Edna Lowenstein, the Yachad program coordinator in the resort city of Eilat who ran an “Exodus from Egypt” happening in the city’s community center. Local children made their own Biblical costumes and foods and were transformed into their ancient Israelite forebears before gathering up all their possessions and “leaving Egypt” via procession. “Their reenactment of the events –including marching across a pathway signify the splitting of the Red Sea – transformed the story from an archaic tale to something alive and meaningful.”
A Seder That Speaks to Each Individual
“Many people forget that the Pesach Seder itself is also meant to be an actual experience,” explains Eliahu Galil, Yachad coordinator in Maaleh Yosef – a string of localities on the Lebanese border. “Most Israelis get the rudiments of Passover at school or through TV – we don’t eat bread, we we were slaves, we eat matza. It’s important that we strengthen their personal connection to their roots and history by imbuing within them a sense of their own role in the unfolding story of the Jewish people.”
This goal was achieved through tens of pre-Pesach Mock Seders across the country, which provided thousands of participants with ideas for fun and meaningful experiences that they could recreate in their own homes. Festive 4-course meals with a selection of wines, hand-made matzah, and a communal joint reading of the Haggadah were spiced with songs and inspiring insights that were translated into Russian, French, English, Spanish, and Amharic.
Many facilitators conducted specialized Seders geared towards specific groups such as lone IDF soldiers, young professionals, new immigrants, conversion students, and Holocaust survivors. For some populations, exploring concepts of Freedom and Exodus at the Mock Seders hit close to home, as their own personal journeys shared similarities with the Passover narrative.
A Similar History
Israelis of Ethiopian descent came together in Haifa’s Neveh Yosef neighborhood for an evening including a Mock Seder, matzah baking, and a trivia quiz. “The Ethiopian community wants to connect to both their Ethiopian roots and to Israeli culture,” explains the local Yachad coordinator, Chernet Varkow, himself of Ethiopian descent. “The theme of Pesach, in many ways similar to the history of Ethiopian Jews, offers a perfect opportunity to do this.”
Russian-speaking Israelis too find many parallels with the Pesach story. Most grew up under Communism, unable to learn about their Jewish heritage, or with parents who didn’t have the knowledge to teach them. “They need to see themselves as the continuation of the Jewish story,” says Arkady Kolomitz, Yachad coordinator in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood. “For many participants in our Mock Seder, this was the first time in their lives they learned about the Exodus from Egypt,” Kolomitz continues. “We connected the themes of the Pesach story to their own experience growing up in the Former Soviet Union and leaving to come to Israel. Several participants ran their first Seder ever after attending our program.”
Alexander Zelemkin confirms: “This was my first time ever running a Seder, and the tools and tips I got from Arkady made it amazing! My son told me afterward that he was expecting a long, drawn-out, boring experience, but was happily surprised by how exciting and meaningful it turned out to be.”
“On Pesach and throughout the year, our goal is to empower Israelis of all backgrounds to explore their Judaism and embrace it on terms that are meaningful and comfortable to them,” attests Betzalel Safra, the Yachad program director of operations. “Yachad’s programming helped ensure that this Passover the discussion at hundreds of Seder tables across the country was on the warmth and beauty inherent in Judaism and the importance of maintaining our age-old Jewish heritage.”