If you are anything like me, you probably spend a fair chunk of your time thinking about how best to cultivate in your children or grandchildren the same kinds of passions and commitments to Judaism that you have. It’s an issue that seems to crop up continuously, and constantly raises challenging questions. Should I send them to a Jewish school? Does it really matter if they behave like that on Shabbat? Should I force them to go to shul today, or be more lenient? It’s a real minefield, and more often than not, most of us are playing a guessing game.
But if I were a betting man, I’d put most of my chips on Seder night. I don’t think any other experience in the Jewish year matters quite as much. Empirically, it seems to be the big one; the occasion when all the sociological stars seem to align; the Jewish year’s, ahem, “crunch” moment.
Why? First, unlike most other Jewish experiences, rather a lot of us tend to show up. Figures from Israel indicate that 93 per cent of Jews there attend a Seder each year. The counts for American Jews are lower — 70 per cent — but that still makes Seder the single most common American Jewish experience of the year. Figures for European Jews are less reliable, but the estimates we have suggest a rate around the 75 per cent mark. In the UK, it’s about 80 per cent. In short, more or less wherever we look, more Jews across the world will be attending Sedarim this year than pretty well anything else we might do together.
Second, sharing Jewish festivals with our families is important to us. That doesn’t necessarily mean we always enjoy doing so, but we value it. Indeed, when we ask Jews what really matters to them about their Jewishness, this familial element always comes close to the top of the list. “Feeling part of the Jewish people” occupies a similar place, and arguably there is no greater opportunity to feel that connection than at a time when so many Jews all over the world are essentially doing the same thing.
Third, evidence suggests that what we do Jewishly in our homes — more than in shuls, schools, and pretty well anywhere else — has the greatest statistical impact on who we ultimately become as Jews. The home environment is most formative; if we get that right, we maximise our chances of success.
And fourth, at the core of the Seder experience is the multi-sensory telling of the foundational narrative of the Jewish People. By narrative, I mean “big” story — the kind of stories that the late NYU Professor Neil Postman described as “sufficiently profound and complex to offer explanations of the origins and future of a people… that construct ideals, prescribe rules of conduct, specify sources of authority, and, in doing all this, provide a sense of continuity and purpose.”
In essence then, on Seder night, in Jewish homes all over the world, numerous Jews gather with their families to celebrate a major Jewish holiday and discuss our shared narrative — the near perfect conditions for creating Jewish memories and leaving lasting Jewish impressions.
Indeed, because of this, irrespective of what we actually do on Seder night, we can be reasonably confident it will have an impact on those present. And critically, because it is such a fundamental Jewish experience, that impact can be positive or negative.
So I would pay very close attention to the adjectives people use to describe their Seder experience. If Seder is tedious, they are learning that Judaism is tedious. If Seder is warm and heimische, they are learning that Judaism is warm and heimische. If Seder is contentless, they are learning that Judaism is contentless. If Seder is rich in meaning, they are learning that Judaism is rich in meaning. In short, Seder is Judaism in microcosm, and whatever values, ideas and feelings we convey during it will be experienced by others as everything that is good — or bad — about what Judaism has to offer.
So here’s a thought. Ask yourself what three adjectives you would ideally want your children or grandchildren to use when describing their Judaism. Then apply those adjectives to your Seder: make it everything you wish their Judaism to be. This, after all, is the big annual opportunity. And have no doubt: it will leave its mark, of whatever kind, whether we like it or not.
Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR).