Breaking free from tradition: New ideas for Passover learning
Watch The Prince of Egypt. Throw the toy frogs. Have a chocolate seder. Create artistic interpretations of the Ten Plagues. These are old stand-bys in the Jewish education world that aim to get our students “excited” and “engaged” in the holiday and tradition of Passover. Now, don’t get me wrong, kids and families genuinely enjoy these classic activities, but when we lean heavily on the same lessons we have used for years, our students are often left with a taste like stale matzah in their mouths. Furthermore, when we teach to the “least common denominator”—the lowest age or most basic skill level—in an effort to engage families or do multi-age programs, our students miss the opportunity to discover something new about themselves, their peers, and the legacy they have inherited as American Jews.
During the seder we sing the song Dayenu, meaning “it would have been enough.” The thing is, as educators, what we do isn’t really ever enough (I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear). It’s not enough to retell the story of our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. It isn’t enough to question our traditions or to challenge ourselves to expand the meaning of freedom in our home communities and in the Jewish community as a whole. Though we may feel satisfied at the end of the meal when the matzah balls and macaroons and wine make us sleepily recline, we cannot become complacent with our responsibility to help our students develop strong, meaningful connections to themselves and to their Jewish heritage.
As the designated “education person” at JWA, a former camp educator and Sunday school teacher, and perhaps most importantly as a student, I challenge you to get out of your Passover holiday rut this year. Here are five ways that you can bring new life to the themes and ideas of Passover:
Build a connection to the struggles for freedom and equality today with those of the past using Living the Legacy: A Jewish Social Justice Education Project. Jews and African Americans: Siblings in Oppression? will guide your students as they examine and interrogate the identification between Jews and African-Americans against the backdrop of the Passover seder.
Or, use the Moving Inward activity to act out the ways Jews took what they had learned from the Civil Rights Movement and other liberation movements and used these insights to change the Jewish community to be more equal and inclusive.
Add a short text study to your seder at home using the story of the midwives Shifrah and Puah. Ask your seder participants to share their own stories of times they acted against injustice, or witnessed others doing so.
Run a family education program exploring the meaning of Passover in relation to the Fourth of July by examining an article from the April 1897 issue of The American Jewess.
Encourage students, family members, or even Elijah to build their own seder using JWA’s edition of The Wandering is Over Haggadah, which includes stories of Jewish women as well as opportunities for participants to share their own Passover memories. Just download, edit, and print!
In The Leaderʹs Guide to the Family Participation Haggadah: A Different Night, Rabbi David Hartman writes: “Passover is the night for reckless dreams; for visions about what a human being can be, what society can be, what people can be, what history may become.”
This Pesach, don’t settle for what has been, what has worked before. Instead, teach to the promise of a just future and the potential that each student has to discover inspiration in the stories of the Jewish tradition, both biblical and modern. Encourage your students to imagine a past when the freedoms they observe today were the reckless dreams of their predecessors. Most of all, encourage students young and old to articulate their own reckless dreams and be agents of freedom in their own lives.