I hear so often from adults who have vague Jewish memories of Passover seders that seemed to drag on that they felt unincluded, or that their job was to be quiet. Another common theme I hear is how boring Seder can be, or that it is often relegated to a page counting, clock watching tedious experience. Parents often feel torn between wanting to loyally stay committed to the long Haggadah, while at the same time wanting to “entertain” their kids and make it a pleasant and enjoyable experience. It’s a noble and important goal to help create a Seder that is both moving and meaningful, entertaining and inclusive, and will foster beautiful memories that will encourage children to stay connected and inspired to Jewish tradition and teachings. I wanted to share five ideas that have helped us create Sederim that we and our children truly enjoy.
1. Prep work! Hopefully, we never enter a big work meeting or any other important endeavor without having studied the content. Often, we put away our Haggadot after the Seder and don’t bring them out again until the night before the Big Night. I would suggest having your family begin reading it a week before (careful to avoid getting chametz in them)! Write down your questions or things that don’t make sense to you and delve deeper, research, call a rabbi (I know a great one 😉 with questions, or check out online websites (www.aish.com and chabad.org are two of my favorites).
2. Age-appropriate expectations: I personally feel the quality of our children’s seder experience is probably more important than the quantity of time spent at the table. My 17-year-old who writes expanded ideas of the Seder and wants us to learn Torah all night was once a five year-old who could barely stay awake through the first hour. Teens often want to socialize with their cousins and friends and that’s awesome – we want them to love being with friends and family. Find key meaningful moments in the Seder to reach each of your children’s/guests’ ideas that you know will speak to them and perhaps spark an interest.
3. FUN, FUN, FUN: One of my greatest teachers in seminary in Jerusalem was very close with one of the leading sages of our times, Rav Moshe Sternbach, shlita. Rav Sternbach told a group of educators that we lost an entire generation of Jews from one Yiddish phrase: It’s tough to be a Jew. While that was the refrain of past generations, sadly the implicit message to young people who were making decisions was that being a Jew was a heavy burden to carry. He advised educators that if we want to rewrite our story, it will be through a new expression: Being a Jew is…FUN!! Torah is awesome! And the Seder experience is a great way to bring this concept to life. Kids (and adults) like things that are different because it is engaging. At our seder, we have costumes, skits, toys, games – anything that we don’t normally do to keep everyone excited.
4. Food brings people together: It’s amazing all the ways that food has the power to create meaningful and memorable experiences! Think how you had a relative who served a certain dish that everyone remembers – the trick, of course, is not to become a slave to the kitchen and menu! Plan well in advance, and possibly include your kids or guests in the menu prep. Ask everyone what their favorite Passover food is: chicken soup, matza balls, brisket, grandma’s famous Pesach cookies, matzah with chocolate, kugels, – and then empower them to help prepare the foods. They can come shopping, and they can help with basic food prep as well. Although this can sometimes feel even more stressful, it’s also a great way to engage and help feel ownership towards the meal experience. Pro tip for the meal: we like to read through the Haggadah and do a lot of our discussion DURING the meal, so people aren’t anticipating “When is it time to eat already?!” Also, it’s crucial that no one is starving going into the meal – hangry kids are usually not able to sit at a seder. I always serve chicken soup and baked potatoes with margarine before the seder even begins, to help give the endurance to sit for a few hours during this magical evening.
5. Mood is everything: As my dear friend and teacher Ruchi Koval once told me: family vacation success is 10% planning and 90% “will mom/dad be in a good mood.” Seder night can be challenging: after days of cleaning, shopping, cooking, organizing – when it’s time for the big night, we are often understandably fatigued. It’s possible someone won’t properly express appreciation, something will not go as planned, someone or something will trigger us. How can we set ourselves up to stay calm and respond appropriately to help maintain the environment we desire? It’s not so easy, but I have a few ideas that work for me. Self-care is crucial, and everyone is energized by something different. For some, it’s pampering, for others it’s getting enough sleep, shopping for something nice, mani/pedi, a relaxing walk/jog, listening to calming music. Beyond meeting our physical/emotional/spiritual needs, I believe with any challenging and important endeavor, it’s crucial that we know our WHY? Why is the Seder so important? Why is my positive disposition essential? For me personally, I feel comforted and inspired knowing the Sages have told us Seder night is our obligation to teach our children. It is an evening about our values; a special night we can teach our children what is really important to us. We are tasked with the sacred responsibility of G-d willing passing the baton of our heritage lovingly into the hands of the next generation. Yes, it is A LOT of work. Yes, I will be tired. Yes, it will be hard to stay energized and attentive for a long (TWO) nights. YES I CAN! This is an incredible blessing and gift to have the opportunity to educate my family with love and guidance. I am humbly and gratefully joining thousands of years of Jewish parents who have bravely shaped the destiny of our people. As I prepare, I will pray that the Source of all Blessings will endow me with all that I need to create a magical experience that may include spilled grape juice, a burnt food dish, a few tears, and G-d willing memories that will sustain my children and guide them to see that above all else Judaism is a precious gift that we are so fortunate and blessed to receive every day in so many ways.