Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch serving Washington University in St. Louis, spent the better part of March gearing up for his largest seders to date. With Passover so close to spring break, many students decided to stay on campus rather than travel back home again, he said. The fact that the seders fell on a Monday and Tuesday instead of a weekend this year boosted attendance even more, so that nearly 400 students attended three different Chabad-sponsored seders.
Preparations for Chabad's seder in Washington U's College Hall
A family-style seder on Monday night offered students and young adults the chance to delve into the Haggadah and seder experience while enjoying a homemade dinner and handmade matzah. A campus-wide seder, also on Monday night, included what Chabad had billed beforehand as “singing and insights.” And on Tuesday night, the Chabad House welcomed guests for dinner there.
The rabbi also provided resources for hundreds of other students who stayed in St. Louis and held their own seders.
On hundreds of college campuses around the world, Chabad helped students prepare for the holiday, and put out the word that they were ready and waiting for anyone looking for a communal service and festive meal. “Our mission statement, if you will, is to create a traditional seder that is relevant to the contemporary American college experience,” said Novack.
Rabbi Michoel Feinstein of Chabad of the Bay Area in Green Bay, Wisc., was busy last week advising how to make kitchens kosher for Passover. Chabad held a demonstration of the process, as well as handed out kits to prepare a house — bedikat chametz — ahead of the holiday. Matzah was also given out to students.
Feinstein also welcomed to his seders an influx of Israelis who work in a kosher production factory nearby. He enjoyed celebrating with an eclectic crowd and encouraged an atmosphere that probed deep into the holiday.
“It’s something you’re meant to relive and re-experience every year; it’s not something to just sit through and be done with,” he said. “Rather, it’s something much more important, much more essential.”
Monday was the first day back at school for students at the University of Cincinnati, so Rabbi Yitzi Creeger knew he had to be ready for anything.
“We just do whatever we can to make yiddishkeit available for those who need it, and it always manages to work out,” he said.
The first night’s seder drew students and community members to a strategic setting — a multipurpose campus building two blocks from Chabad, where those who might otherwise shy away from entering a Chabad House felt more comfortable.
“We get to meet new people like that,” he said, recalling how, at the last minute one year, a Jewish fraternity member mentioned to his house that he was going, and a party of 10 extra men showed up. “We just threw up another table,” he said. “We’re happy that people choose to come here and experience traditional Judaism and the seder.”
To keep it lively, scripts were handed out and volunteers acted like major characters from the Passover story. Additionally, Creeger’s wife — Chabad co-director Dina Creeger — and their children made sock puppets for the occasion and performed the “Four Sons” portion of the Haggadah. They wanted people to engage with content that sometimes gets lost in the length of a typical seder, he explained.
The rabbi hoped that guests went home with a new appreciation of some aspect of Judaism, and that they will come back for Shabbat or to take a class.
Preparing for to the start of Rohr Chabad of Durham/Chapel Hill and Duke University's seder for students and community members. (Photo: Sheldon T. Becker)
“We try to take advantage of the opportunity to show that there’s a life and a warmth and a meaning to Judaism,” said Creeger. It’s not unusual for people to comment afterwards that it was the best seder they ever attended —or even admit that it was their first, he added.
The holiday had lessons for everyone, he said, including the idea of freeing oneself from certain constraints. It’s all part of an ongoing conversation he wants students to indulge in over the course of eight days, whether at the seder, while eating kosher-for-Passover meals at the Chabad House, or by attending the Passover picnic or barbecue.
Like every year, the rabbi will take notes on what works and what doesn’t, and keep his ears tuned to the crowd’s comments and suggestions.
“Everybody here is on a different page,” said Creeger. “We’re just trying to connect with all of them, trying to involve them in some way.”