According to statistics, a mass exodus took place this past Pesach. But unlike the Biblical Exodus which Pesach is meant to recall, this exodus was comprised of half a million Israelis who responded to sweet vacation deals promising “true freedom” on this Festival of Freedom by swapping their matza for French croissants and their four cups of wine for German’s finest beers.

Indeed, in a Jewish country where only a small percentage of the population actually knows the origins and significance of the major festivals, the high numbers of people who view them as nothing more than vacation time is not surprising. If secular Israelis feel no connection to their heritage, it is only natural that they would lose interest and relinquish their traditions.

OTS’s Yachad Program was established to stem this tide. Our mission – on Pesach and all year round – is to reawaken secular Israelis to the beauty and relevance inherent in Judaism, to restore their connection to their religion and culture. Our 32 Jewish Cultural Facilitators in 80 community centers across Israel are successfully reaching out to the unaffiliated and alienated, and empowering them to reclaim ownership of their Judaism on terms that are both comfortable and meaningful.

Why is This Night Different?

In the weeks leading up to Passover, over 5000 children, teens and adults participated in more than 100 programs run by Jewish Cultural Facilitators from the OTS Yachad Program. Israelis of all ages and backgrounds were attracted to exciting Pesach happenings and innovative activities such as “How to Survive Pesach” seminars; workshops for teachers eager to inject tradition into their classrooms; or sessions for secular professionals who realized that they were incapable of passing on to their children the traditions that they had grown up with at their grandparents’ knees.

Yachad facilitators also ran pre-Pesach mock Seders in their respective community centers geared toward a variety of populations. Some were intended for Israelis who identify as secular but who are open to learning about the customs, foods and precepts of the meal they have been resentfully enduring on an annual basis for most of their lives. Others were built for adults who lead a Seder of their own on Pesach but want to make it a more interesting and significant experience for all those present. There were also mock Seders specially designed for groups of teens, kids, senior adults, professionals, people with special needs, single parents, schoolchildren, youth-at-risk, and a variety of after-school clubs.

“On Seder night, many extended Israeli families do get together for some sort of festive feast,” points out Yigal Klein, the Yachad Program’s Educational Director. “It’s crucial to harness that get-together and connect it to the get-togethers that have been held in past generations. It’s important to make the evening into more than just a meal but rather into something interesting, significant and inspiring for everyone sitting around the table,” he says.

“For so many, participation in the mock Seder is their first exposure to the traditions and rituals of Pesach,” says Bat Yam facilitator Roi Peretz.  “Really, there is no other night as powerful for passing on Jewish identity to the next generation as Seder night, but it has to be done with love, without coercion… I had one teenager tell me afterward that his parents had discouraged him from coming, they said it would be long and boring. ‘But it wasn’t anything like that at all!’ he said. Over and over again I see that when Judaism is presented in an appealing and warm setting, most secular Jews will embrace the opportunity to make it a meaningful part of their lives.”

Hands-On Learning

For younger children, Yachad facilitators taught about Pesach through storytelling, arts and crafts or music, and visits to local secular kindergartens and schools.

In addition, Yachad facilitators set up dozens of pop-up bakeries across the country. “We gave them the opportunity not only to see matzah being sold in the supermarket, but to make it with their own hands and establish a sense of ownership,” reports Tzofia Mezuman, Yachad facilitator in the Golan Heights capital of Katzrin. “We dressed them up in little baker’s outfits and set up a matzah baking factory for them. They children learned all about why we eat matzot on Pesach, how they must be baked and why. Then they rolled up their sleeves and prepared and kneaded the dough, watching it carefully in the oven and timing with a stopwatch to make sure that it did not become hametz. Each child went home with their own hand-baked matzah.” Of course, some of the children couldn’t wait, so sweet chocolate spread and other goodies were on hand for immediate gratification.

“The children were very excited,” attests Rishon LeZion’s facilitator, Liron Levy. “They sang and listened and asked questions, and really got into the festive atmosphere.”

“As Though You Yourself Came Out of Egypt”

One of the Haggadah’s directives is for each Jew to recount the story of what happened in the past – but also to relive the experience, as if the exodus from slavery to freedom were taking place in the present,” says Shlomit Weber, Yachad facilitator in the city of Yokneam. For the third year in a row, Weber ran an “Exodus from Egypt” happening in the city’s central park, giving children an opportunity to attend a variety of workshops and booths where they made their own Biblical costumes and foods which transformed them into their ancient Israelite forebears.

“At the end, they grabbed the matzot they made on the outdoor taboons, gathered up the possessions they had made, and left Egypt,” she relates. “We even re-enacted the splitting of the Red Sea as the kids marched across the bridge over the park’s river. As they took on the personae of the slaves who left Egypt, their ‘boring’ history suddenly became fascinating and alive,” she shares.

Older audiences were also given the opportunity to view themselves “as if they, too, had left Egypt,” as per the Hagaddah’s instructions. “The slavery of Egypt is not something we experienced,” admits Uri Weill, Yachad facilitator in Tel Aviv’s old north. “But there are other types of slavery which we must confront as individuals and as a society, from things we are slaves to on a daily basis – like money and time – to deeper issues like substance abuse, addictions and the larger societal problem of human trafficking.” This year, current events provided an extremely topical framework to these conversations. “The government announced its plan to deport the 30,000-odd illegal African immigrants in Israel.  “The upcoming Pesach festival served as a backdrop as we held significant debate about their status – infiltrators or refugees? – and discussed the Jewish state’s responsibility toward them,” says Weill. “There is no doubt that they pose a significant challenge to the country, but at the same time, many felt that perhaps the very experience of slavery and redemption Passover recalls should compel us, of all people, to show mercy and seek justice?

“What we all agreed upon was that personal freedom brings with it responsibility,” Weill acknowledges.  “I found it very interesting to witness their realization that what they initially thought was an archaic tradition or an irrelevant narrative may actually contribute to their understanding of contemporary, daily struggles.”