Most of us can conjure up the sights, sounds, and smells of Passover: the seder plate set out on the white (pre-wine-stained) tablecloth, the off-key “Dayenu,” the sinus-stripping horseradish, and the sight of matzah balls floating on a golden sea of chicken soup, with the fragrances from the kitchen promising even more delights.
Indeed, the Passover seder (Hebrew for “order”) has the power to knit together the ragged edges of a family, torn apart by years and miles, and by diverging lifestyles and religious paths. So it’s no wonder that the far-away college student can feel lonely and disconnected during these eight days (in Israel, the holiday lasts seven days).
At one point, Maggie Burke had little connection with Jewish pride or community. “But going to my first Hillel seder, hearing everyone singing the songs I’d only sung with my parents, eating the traditional foods, was interactive and fun,” she recalls. “I hadn’t seen that many Jewish people together in one room for years.”
Three years have passed since that night at the University of Utah’s Hillel seder, and Burke has been to Israel on Birthright and is applying for a two-year Hillel fellowship post-graduation. “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone to that first seder,” she says.
For students during Passover, rabbis and Hillel directors often become in loco parentis, and friends and community members become family, creating the feeling of belonging to this ancient people and their transformative story. Most of the roughly 200 Jewish students at the University of Utah (and the other eight schools served by the University’s Pesach programs) stay put for Passover, says Hillel of Utah executive director Dana Tumpowsky. “And for many of them, ours is the first seder they’ve ever been to.”
In addition to smaller seders in Greek houses, dormitories, and apartments, the big ones tend to be sponsored by Hillel International, with its presence on 550 North American campuses, or by Chabad on Campus, which serves some 30,000 students at the seders they run through 265 Chabad centers on or near campuses, and the other 235 schools they also serve.
Each year, Chabad rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik rents out the ballroom at Colorado State University for the more than 200 students and community members who gather for seder. (He and his wife, Devorah Leah, do most of the cooking for this.)
“Most don’t have family nearby, and there isn’t a lot of Jewish infrastructure, so we end up being the ‘go to’ place for the Jewish community and definitely for the seder,” says the rabbi. “It’s a beautiful opportunity for our small community to come together and celebrate.”
But for every young adult with strong seder memories, Passover on campus may be even more important for those who haven’t ever had the chance to ask “The Four Questions” or open the door for Elijah, or stay up until the wee hours making sure they drain all four cups of wine (or grape juice), singing “Chad Gad Ya” and crunching the last bite of the afikomen.
In fact, as much as their families may miss them and vice versa, staying on campus can actually have unexpected positive after-effects.
Arie George traces the beginning of his connection with Judaism to Passover nine years ago, when he was a law student at the University of Kansas. “I signed up for the Passover meal plan for the week mostly because I didn’t want to cook when I was cramming for my law-school finals, but I ended up feeling so connected I basically started coming to Shabbat dinners and services,” says George, who’s now 33, married, an active member of the Kansas City Jewish community, and looking forward to hosting his out-of-town family at his own seder.
That strong connection to Jewish community and tradition has never been as important as it is today in the face of increasing anti-Israel pressures on many campuses.
Anti-Israel groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) hold seders that equate Israel with Pharaoh — its signature Haggadah dedicates the third cup of wine to “L’chayim to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” It goes on to declare that “we proudly support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) … until the Israeli government ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantles the Wall; recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respects, protects, and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
One of historian Gil Troy’s chief concerns about this kind of rewriting of history being widely distributed is that “very marginal movements — JVP, INN (IfNotNow), even J Street, through the progressive megaphone effect, are seen as representing the Jewish community or Jewish youth,” explains the author of The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow. “They represent a small marginal alienated bunch, and presume to speak for more people than they do, even on campus.”
Indeed, the holiday, which falls within a few weeks of “Israeli Apartheid Week” — held each spring at a growing number of universities, during which Israel is demonized on many campuses — is often used as an opportunity for anti-Israel groups to foment negative views of the Jewish state.
Two years ago, the student governments of Pitzer College, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Tufts University all took advantage of Passover to call last-minute BDS votes.
“The end result is a lot of Jewish students are off-campus with their families at this time of year, so calling a vote then effectively silences their voices,” says Max Samarov, executive director of research and strategy at StandWithUs, a group devoted to supporting Israel and fighting antisemitism. “This means the anti-Israel groups basically hijack the student governments.”
All of which offers an important lesson, he adds. “It reminds us that we need to be proactive on campus, to set the agenda, and not just be reactive. And to remember there’s never a reason not to publicly show pride and hold events that draw people in and educate. We need to build strong community and it takes the willingness to stand up and to do the behind-the-scenes work and planning.”
When a student steps up and takes responsibility for the work and planning in making a seder, that’s one of the happiest outcomes of being away from home for the holiday, says Tumpowsky of the Utah Hillel.
“Last year for the first time, they said, ‘We’ll prep it ourselves, we’ll lead it ourselves, we’ve got this down.’ And they really understand what it means. It’s like we see them growing into Jewish adults before our eyes.”
The residents of the Jewish co-op where UCLA senior Asher Naghi lives are also planning their first-ever seder this year. “It’s an opportunity to really emphasize things that are important to us, such as the liberation story,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity to put into practice everything you’ve ever learned about the holiday, and everything you love about it, and share it with your friends.”
Rabbi Charlie Schwartz says this development of an autonomous Jewish identity bodes well for the future of both the individual and the Jewish people. “When students celebrate Jewish holidays on campus, maybe away from family for the first time, they experience the power of the Jewish tradition on their own terms, setting them on the course towards an enduring commitment to Jewish life,” says Schwartz, content director for Hillel International’s Center for Jewish and Israel Education.
“What’s more, these experiences of Jewish tradition have the potential to ground students in a sense of self and community strong enough to bolster students’ resiliency as they face life’s challenges.”
For many, that first seder away from home is an experience that, rather than a loss, is actually a powerful and transformational moment, says Rabbi Gorelik in Colorado. “It’s a long night of skits, songs, stories, and fantastic food,” he says. “By the end, we in a real sense become family, and they have this unique opportunity to really get in touch with their Jewish neshamas — their Jewish souls.”
At the University of Miami, Hillel encourages a variety of seder experiences. Casey Dresbach, who now serves as president of the school’s Hillel, having returned from her Birthright Israel trip over a year ago, is “inspired and ready to do something more passionate, more committed to my Jewish self and to reaching out, especially to younger students.”
So to inspire others with the power of a Passover seder, the Miami Hillel is holding two group seders on campus for the first night, and helping underwrite smaller private ones for the second seder. “We want to encourage everyone to get involved,” says Dresbach. “We want them to have a real seder experience.”