Sunday, December 04, 2022

Teaneck—Look around in the weeks before the Passover holiday and you will find a multitude of books and articles suggesting ways to stimulate discussion at the Seder. Now, that’s great for the adults, but if you try this with most kids, the Red Sea will come crashing down on you.

Many years ago, I read an article by a rabbi encouraging his congregation in the celebration of Sukkot. “Building a sukkah, decorating it, and eating in it,” he wrote, “... provides an experience that literally surrounds us... [and] engages all our senses... Those who build, decorate, and use succahs... will never have to explain [to their children] why Judaism is important to them.” (Rabbi Michael Hecht, Cleveland Jewish News, Sept 23, 1988). That was almost 30 years ago, but his words have remained with me ever since. While he focused on Sukkot, we should of course all realize he was truly talking about all the holidays.

Now, some holidays have the experiential built right in. On Sukkoth, we build a sukkah, we eat in it, and some of us may even sleep in it. On Purim, the kids dress up, they hear the megillah, they yell and scream at Haman, and they ride around with us as we deliver the mishloach manot. Pesach and the Seder, of course, are supposed to make for the quintessential experiential program —the reliving of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim—The Exodus from Egypt. But there is experiential and then there is experiential. We can sit at a formal table, dryly reading the haggadah, drinking the four cups and eating the requisite amount of matzah and maror. But if we do that, many of us (and many of our children) will look back at the Seder and remember it as it was, dry.

However, there really is no reason why the Seder can’t be both fun and engaging. Yes, it does take planning; yes, it does take effort. But it doesn’t take much, and once you see the excitement in your children’s eyes and those of your guests, you will never look at leaving Egypt the same way again.

When our kids were a little younger, they just loved a competition, even if it was as mundane as who would be the first upstairs for a bath. They just had to be first. And it was all that much sweeter if they came out ahead of their siblings. We’ve used this to our advantage in our seders by printing “Passover Points,” colorful currency that is passed out with each question, answer, or song (or for no good reason whatsoever) to be redeemed at the end for prizes. This probably has got to be the number one idea of them all. Only now, as our kids have gotten older, has the excitement over Passover Points finally calmed down. “Our winner... is the Pesach points! Everyone loves them!” my cousin once wrote me from New Orleans.

Depending on the age and personality of your children, be prepared to cut the intellectual discussions short (there, I said it). Sure, it would be wonderful to have the neighbors knock on the door in the morning announcing it’s now time to recite the Sh’ma, but the real mitzvah is to pass the story and the experience of leaving Egypt on to the children. Many young children, although I would venture a guess most adults too, really cannot sit through a long discussion. They’re tired, they’re hungry, they want excitement, and as we all know, they want food. So be prepared to cut out the long discussions and just fly through those sections. There will come a time soon enough when the children are older and they will start the discussions themselves and you will be the one who wants to end early. But for now, keep it fluid, keep it exciting, keep it entertaining. Plan games and activities around and during the Seders. Singing is a must! Sing whatever parts of the Haggadah you can.

We all remember the songs we sang at our own childhood Seders (who doesn’t remember Dayenu?) and our own children are no different. Have games at the Seder both to keep the children’s (and adults’) attention and to provide a means to keep them supplied with snacks. We have played our own version of “Passover Bingo,” where marshmallows and jelly rings (or carrot slices for a healthier alternative) are used as markers when a certain section or activity is reached. Not only does this keep the kids looking for the next box to cover, but it provides them with a much-needed snack along the way. Why not create a second Seder plate for your table? But on this Seder plate (really a crudites plate), place different snacks that represent different aspects of the seder and have the kids guess what each one “replaces.” We’ve placed chocolate covered matzah, grapes, ice cream sprinkles, red Kojel, marshmallows, and gummy bears on ours (see if you can guess what each stands for). And if along the way, it just so happens that your children need to sample them…well, so much the better. Two years ago we played “Jeopardy—the Unleavened Version” with the children while we waited for sundown and all the last-minute preparations to be completed. The kids had a blast and our hosts had a few extra kid-free moments to finish up what needed to be done. Because it’s easy enough to come up with new questions, we are looking forward to Jeopardy 2015.

For most of the activities to be planned for the Seder, it is possible, no, make that important, no, make that crucial to involve the children (and even the guests) in the planning and/or execution. Once they are involved, they will “own” the activity. They will make sure it’s “cool” to participate and they will make sure it “works.” Our oldest helped plan our Seder bingo boards. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, she picked what to list in each box, organized the pictures and set up the boards. Our younger ones cut the laminated boards and sliced the carrot markers. Not only did it become “their” Seder game, but my wife and I then had some extra time to work on other Seder ideas.

No one can possibly remain seated the whole Seder. But when it comes to action Seders, some communities really know what to do. In some Sephardic families, there is a custom of whipping the neighbor seated next to you with a scallion, reminding us of how the taskmasters beat the slaves. I am told those of Yemenite ancestry step over a pot of water—in lieu of crossing the Red Sea. Why not take this one step further? Several years ago I “found” Moses’s staff in our local park (how many of you knew Har Nevo was really the pitcher’s mound in Phelps Park?). So now, right after we read the ten plagues, we all stand up and walk through the house, led by “Moses” holding his staff. We walk from one room to the next crossing a doorway covered with a blue tablecloth all the while singing “Az Yashir.” In our house, just when the kids are getting antsy because they’ve been sitting too long... Let’s Go! Time to cross the Red Sea!

With just a little planning, the Seder will become a highlight of the year and will create memories the children will never forget. These are just a couple ideas, but really they are just the tip of the iceberg. So much can be done; the limits are your imagination.

“And when your child shall ask what is this service?”

“And you shall tell your child on that day...”

If we can foster excitement in our children, we will pass the message on to them. I would argue this is laudatory and is the real mitzvah of the Seder!

To learn more, come join us in Teaneck at Cong. Shaare Tefilla (510 Claremont Ave.) at 8 p.m. Wednesday night, March 18 or at Cong. Beth Aaron (950 Queen Anne Rd.) at 4 p.m. Shabbat afternoon, March 21 for amazing and exciting, hands-on, multi-media presentation-workshops on how to create kid-friendly seders.

By Zal Suldan

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