From left, Rabbi Abe Lebovic of Congregation Beth Israel, Cantor Irene Failenbogen...

From left, Rabbi Abe Lebovic of Congregation Beth Israel, Cantor Irene Failenbogen of The New Synagogue of Long Island, and Rabbi Mendy Goldberg of Lubavitch of the East End. Credit: Congregation Beth Israel; The New Synagogue of Long Island; Rabbi Mendy Goldberg

Passover, the Jewish observance commemorating the Israelites’ emancipation from slavery in ancient Egypt, begins with a ritual seder meal after sundown on April 5. This week’s commenters discuss what non-Jews can expect if they attend a seder — virtually or in person — at a home or a synagogue, or join one of the public seders in the region.


Cantor Irene Failenbogen

The New Synagogue of Long Island, Brookville


The first thing to know is that the seder will take many hours. Seder is the Hebrew word for “order,” referring to the steps that we follow to remember the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Even for Jewish people, it can feel like a very long process to get to the first bite of food.

Nowadays, the story told during the seder has been translated into English to make it more accessible to non-
Hebrew speakers. The songs and prayers of the Haggadah, the book used to tell the Passover story, are joyful and emotional. One of the first seders I attended in New York was led by Debbie Friedman, the legendary American singer-songwriter of Jewish religious music. More than 500 women were dancing together to “Miriam’s Song,” which celebrates Moses’ older sister, who played an important role in the exodus of Israelites from Egypt. We were holding hands and sharing the spirit of freedom that I never experienced growing up in Argentina. Initially, I felt like an outsider, but the warmth of strangers’ hands and the music made me feel like one of the women who had just crossed the Red Sea — almost like Miriam herself.  

Rabbi Mendy Goldberg

Lubavitch of the East End, Coram

In four words: Eat before you come. (It can be a long wait until the first course.)

All jokes aside, though, Passover is unique among Jewish holidays, such as the High Holidays, when much time is spent in synagogue, praying. Passover is family time. Biblical tradition mandates that the paschal offering be made with family, with parents obliged to retell the Passover story to their children. Many Jewish holidays focus on eating. However, during the 15 steps of the seder, each food — the matzo, the bitter herbs, the four cups of wine — is a symbol and a prompt for a question and a story that helps tell of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.

While Passover celebrates the freedom of the Jews from bondage 3,335 years ago, it also commemorates the birth of the Jewish nation. The primary food is unleavened bread, symbolizing humility as a key ingredient for growth and freedom. Passover beckons us to relive the exodus every year, no matter what’s going on in the rest of the world. It reminds us that we can all overcome our external constraints and self-
created limitations, as only then can we truly experience freedom.  

Rabbi Abe Lebovic

Congregation Beth Israel of Cathedral Gardens, Hempstead

Seders come in all forms and colors, so the one you’ll be attending will determine what you discover. There is a particular ritual routine to the evening, but that routine can differ from seder to seder. As a general rule, all seders will include eating matzo, the unleavened ritual cracker; drinking four cups of wine; and the presence of a special seder plate consisting of various ritual foods including bitter herbs. All of these foods are symbolic of the highs and lows of the Exodus narrative.

Expect some semblance of the reciting of the Haggadah, the liturgical telling of the story of the Exodus, varying in length depending on the type of seder it is. The seriousness of the evening’s content and the discussion around the table will also vary, and the tone is usually set by the leader of the seder. Expect singing and lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to participate. Expect delicious food — after the ritual parts — and make sure to stick around for that.

My wish is that the seder you attend leaves you with a spiritual message of personal hope, liberation and freedom. And have fun; there’s nothing to be nervous about.

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