Rebranding Passover… And Judaism

Rebranding Passover... And Judaism

As the Jewish Holiday of Passover approaches, I was told recently that as opposed to twenty years ago, when 90% of Jews reported that they attended some kind of Passover Seder, this year, more like 65% are expected to attend the Jewish spring ritual. When asked about the waning interest, Jews claim that they are increasingly bored by the 2000 year-old dinner. What happened to this ritual which if put together with a bit of intrigue, is one of the more fascinating stories ever told on earth?

After all, how often does a single meal include discussions of ultimate good and evil; identity crisis, stunning miracles, human intransigence; battles of ego and will; breath-taking chase scenes; love and loss? Those of us who remember Cecil B. Demille’s film, Ten Commandments, can attest that this age-old story can make for one heck of “watch”.

But, alas, so many choose to dryly read through the words of the Passover story with a cadence which begs invited guests to wonder when they might ever have a chance at eating the festive meal whose aroma is stifled someplace in the kitchen. And we wonder why religion suffers! We take potentially the most exciting rituals and bury them in what is stale and immoveable. And, so people “pass” on Passover.

This “Passover dilemma” is actually a metaphor for religion generally. Boredom amongst other aspects of religious life has driven authentic seekers of meaning and spirituality away. And yet, there is innovation, depth of meaning and deep joy, popping up all over the religious/spiritual world. It is just hard for many to believe that whatever is out there is somehow attractive, positive and not replete with judgment.

One of my new, favorite champions in this field of connecting seekers of meaning to religion (in this case, Judaism, but the mode applies to anyone seeking meaning) is Archie Gottesman. She and her creative partner, Stacy Stuart, have created a website called JewBelong. On their site, they have fashioned a brand called “Kick Ass Judaism”. The name might take you aback at first, but that is part of the point. It is supposed to throw you just enough to make you take a look; to send the overt message that this is not the same old religion with which you grew up. They are encouraging an intriguing, compelling, in-your-face brand of Judaism. It is not about trends, gimmicks or fads. It is about relating to your modern self, engaging you where you are in life and reminding you that meaning is yours to own.

These two spiritual mavericks push back at the notion that we should be judged for what we might know or not know; remember or not remember.  They celebrate the journey; and they emphasize the “celebrate” part… a lot. Their ideas are funny, but not shallow; sarcastic, while hitting a cord, which connects to our deepest sense of wisdom. They remind us that too many of us are “Jewbarrased,” a word they have assigned to those moments when others make us feel judged or embarrassed for not doing something the “right way”…. that is, in the eyes of those who assume they have a monopoly on religious truth.

And, Gottesman and Stuart realize that as important as the content is the branding itself. They understand that to help us back in the door, spirituality must stop us in our tracks. In fact, they are brand specialists by trade. For twenty years they created some of the most creative and successful advertising campaigns for Manhattan Mini Storage in New York City. They created satirical and brash billboards which drove business exponentially up. Ironically, the ads had nothing to do with storage and everything to do with grabbing at what we think about as human beings.

And they have done the same with their version of “Kick Ass Judaism”, with the only difference being that their clever branding is only superseded by the substantive suggestions they make on their website (listed above).

I began this log with statistics about Passover attendance. Following are Archie and Stacy’s commandments (in their post, “How To Lead A Kick-Ass Seder”) to insure that your Seder is meaningful and replete with fun and celebration (on the website are many, many suggestions of activities for children and adults and a phenomenal Haggada ((the Passover story)), ready for download):

1. The Seder Police

There are none. Yes, there are certain traditions to a Seder. In fact, the word Seder actually means “order,” and there is a specific order that you are supposed to follow. But if you’re the Seder Leader (SL), you are the master of the table. So if you want to have a rip-roaring Seder, do whatever feels right. Personally, I think many Haggadahs are deadly dull. So many people take control and make their own Haggadahs. Feel free to download mine or make your own at www.haggadot.com. (But for God’s sake, don’t wait until the day before Passover.)

2. Watch Out For Too Much Hebrew (AKA Don’t Play “Who’s A Better Jew?”)

You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re at a Seder with like 15 people, and there are only four who know the words to some Hebrew song, and the rest of you sit there uncomfortably while they stumble through it? Me, too. And it makes me feel like a bad Jew, wondering, “Why didn’t my Jewish education prepare me for this?” This is NOT the feeling you want to elicit at your Seder. So if you’re going to include Hebrew, make sure your guests understand it, or keep it to a minimum.

3. Haters Gonna Hate

Last year, I was helping my friend Jenna lead a Seder, and just as everyone was sitting down at the table, Jenna’s mother-in-law proclaimed, “Let’s make this quick; I’m hungry!” Are you kidding me? Nothing like a comment like that to take the wind right out of yours sails. Just know that problematic people will make negative comments sometimes, and power through it. (At the end of the night, Nasty Mother-In-Law actually said it was the best Seder she had ever been to. Oh, Snap!)

4. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

If SLs spent as much time preparing their Seder service as cooks spend preparing the Seder meal, celebrating Passover would be a lot more meaningful. But what happens all too often is that the SL thinks he/she can just wing it – and they can’t. You have to spend real time preparing your Seder. It will make all the difference. Seders do not have to be boring, but SLs do need to step it up.

5. Know Your Audience

Who’s going to be at your Seder? If you’re having Jews and non-Jews, then be prepared to explain a lot of stuff. Hell, even if it’s only Jews coming, you should still give explanations. I have been going to Seders my entire life, and it was not until I put together my own Haggadah that I really learned the details. If you are hosting a cerebral group of guests and want to go around the room and ask what freedom means to each of them, go right ahead; but don’t try that with a crowd like mine. If you’re having a bunch of kids over, make sure you either serve appetizers or have snacks on the table. And I am not opposed to setting up A Rugrats Passover in the den for the kids who hit the wall.

6. Wine Is Your Friend

Not much to say about this one except it’s more fun singing “Dayenu” with a buzz.

7. The Jews Are Counting On You

Leading a kick-ass Seder is important! What if it’s the only Jewish experience your cousin Rachel has the entire year? It’s your job to inspire her with some fun and spirituality. Yes, that’s a lot of pressure, but you’re up to it! Now go have a fabulous Pesach!

All of us deserve to own our journeys and searches for meaning. Thank you to Archie Gottesman and Stacy Stuart for leaving their corporate lives to help us find our place as we look for sweet fulfillment.

Happy Spring…..however it is that you celebrate!


Matt Gewirtz

Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.

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