Growing up in the home of a rabbi meant that one of my Passover memories was experiencing the striking contrast between the First Night Seder and the one that Dad led on the Second Night. At the first Seder, in our home, we had a blend of extended family and a few guests/friends. Dad led it with penetrating commentary and lively discussion engaging all present in an intimate way. It seemed to last for hours as stories of antiquity were blended with questions and challenges of freedom as pertained to the times in which we lived.
The Second Night Seder was very different; Dad led the community Seder at Beth Sholom in San Francisco, where he served as rabbi for 48 years, until his death in 1983. It was not just that the Seder was dramatically shorter and lacking in shared discussion and conversation. More noticeable was that the attendees came from many different backgrounds and most were not associated with the synagogue. They enjoyed the opportunity to attend a Seder that the synagogue provided as a service to the community. The atmosphere around the tables lacked the kind of warmth inherent the First Day. People didn’t know each other and frankly weren’t as interested in what was in the Haggadah as they were in the meal and meeting the obligation to attend a Seder as part of their Jewish upbringing. I did not enjoy those Seders and when I grew up and became a rabbi who led such Seders, those memories of my youth tainted my appetite for leading them.
While they were not as “industrial strength” either at Kol Shofar or at Beth Sholom in Napa, I still felt the sense that it was more about serving non-members, or members you rarely saw except for that occasion and possibly Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
That all changed for me at B’nai Israel. The first thing I noticed in leading a community Seder at CBI was that most attendees were active in more ways than that attendance, i.e. I actually knew them! Further, with the growth of the monthly Shabbat Seder experience, I began to see an overlap between participants that attended on those Shabbat occasions and the community that gathers for Passover. In short, I never knew a synagogue Passover Seder could be such a genuine community experience until having the opportunity and pleasure of leading CBI in our Second Night Seders. In fact, I never anticipated that I would describe leading such a Seder as a pleasure, as opposed to a responsibility to provide an important service to the broader Jewish community.
I suspect there is a correlation between the sustained popularity and enjoyment of the monthly Shabbat Seder and the meaningful time we share at the Second Night Passover Seder at CBI. In any case, I know I look forward to it and the the joy of being with a community that increasingly feels like extended family, and that is what the Passover Seder and the overall experience of this holiday is intended to be: families joining together to relive the Exodus from Egypt and to revisit values of community and freedom as celebrated in such a context.
B’nai Israel’s Second Night Seder and its manifestation as community, more than service to those not connected with us, is more significant than the obvious enjoyment and appreciation for sharing the experience with people you know and care for. It is an important contribution to our lives in a world that is in increasing upheaval from threats, dangers and destructive activity as what just happened in Brussels, as I write these words. In such an era, with so many alarming events happening, and areas of concern we must address, beyond whatever challenges we each face in our personal and family lives, one of the best and healthiest antidotes is caring community: people you know that share values learned and explored together, at Passover Seders, on Shabbat or at any of the many other wonderful and engaging activities we provide each other in this unique and precious community we are fortunate to have.
Please do not take CBI for granted or its inviting and important contexts in which we gather to maintain this strength of community. Please join our wonderful president Fred Zola and your dedicated Board of Directors to help with his mandate of including more and more people in the leadership and governance of this community. Whatever happens here is because you are part of it; it is up to you to reflect on whether you could do more to maintain and enrich its activity and programming. Whatever you do to help and participate, the one benefitting most is you and your family and dear ones.
Thanks to you, we are not alone, and with your involvement, we have made certain that there is no “industrial strength” Seder held at B’nai Israel. Instead, it is the gathering of loving community, appreciative of having one another in times when that matters increasingly so, as unknowns that await us continue to stir up worries for the future, here and everywhere. These concerns are lightened when we know we are not alone in facing them, thanks to having each other at CBI and being part of all those that make this community home Kadosh, Special, Memorable, Treasurable, Wonderful…Holy.
Blessings to you and all your dear ones as we welcome our Holiday of Freedom and all the values we learn to cherish and by which to live.