Go and Learn – Your Way

Why is this Haggada different from all other Haggadot? Because it was designed online, tailored to each Seder table’s needs.

Haggadah reading_311 (photo credit: haggadah.com)
Haggadah reading_311
(photo credit: haggadah.com)
WHAT DO YOU DO when the guests at your Seder table include a Reform rabbi, an Orthodox feminist, a gay Conservative couple and two unaffiliated, culturally Jewish young people? No, this isn’t the opening line of a holiday joke. It is the description of a situation faced by an increasing number of Jewish families, as they search for ways to make their Seder meaningful for guests of diverse backgrounds.
In an attempt to provide answers, Eileen Levinson, 30, a Los Angeles-based artist and designer, has created a new website called Haggadot.com. A free service, the site allows individuals to publish personalized haggadot, mixing their own materials together with textual and graphic content shared by other users.
The concept can yield truly unexpected results, as traditional elements are mixed with more progressive selections, in any combination that one wishes.
Haggadot.com is for today’s Jews, who may or may not be defined by the traditional boxes of a particular denomination, synagogue or organization, explains Levinson.
The site is perfect for computer-savvy folk, but is also accessible to those with limited skills. Once you sign into the site, you are free to upload your own material – family traditions, personal stories, photographs or artwork, among other possibilities – and then search for other elements previously uploaded by other users. Content is organized according to the traditional parts of the Seder, starting with the Kiddush over the first cup of wine and ending at the final songs of the evening.
Browsers can locate what they like and add it to their clipboards, using the click and drag method. After saving it on the site, you can print it as a PDF document booklet.
In an extensive telephone interview with The Report, Levinson explains that two distinct paths led her to conceive of the website. One stems from her career in graphic design, where she was involved in collaborative art projects, in particular using the Internet as a forum for multiple people to co-create a work of art.
The other path relates to what she calls a mixed sense of Jewish identity. Born in New York to a Reform family, she moved to south Florida while still in elementary school and then attended college in St. Louis. In each location, she recalls, she experienced diverse forms of Jewish practice.
“Passover is the perfect example of that. I would go to a friend’s house in a different Jewish community and it was so different than what I did in my family, a different routine with different songs,” she says.
Levinson developed an interest in open conversation about Jewish practice and began investigating a range of observances. Coming of age in the 1990s, she says that understanding and appreciating all the elements of one’s racial, sexual and ethnic identities was a natural part of her upbringing. “It was a given that you should be able to express all parts of yourself,” she adds.
That sense of openness is reflected in the unusually diverse content available on Haggadot.com. For example, selections aimed at interfaith families provided by InterfaithFamily.com are accessible alongside material from the Orthodox-affiliated National Jewish Outreach program. Those seeking content with an LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender], environmental or political focus will find that as well. The traditional Seder liturgy is online, but accompanied by modern twists; the Four Questions are provided in their traditional Hebrew form and are also available in several other languages, including Ladino, Yiddish and Luganda, the language spoken in Uganda. There is even an alternative version of the Had Gadya (“One Goat”) song, based on the tradition of the Igbo people of Nigeria.
The Community of Young Jewish Innovators, funded by US philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and known as ROI, provided the seed money for Levinson to produce the site. According to Justin Korda, ROI’s executive director, the website was something the Jewish community needed.
“People around the world are not participating in Jewish life as they could be,” he tells The Jerusalem Report in a phone interview.
Korda adds that the site’s mission matches ROI’s goal of supporting young leaders who are doing things to expand the horizons of what it means to be part of a Jewish community.
Moreover, he says, “the site allows people to personalize the Haggada. It gives them more ownership over their heritage.”
NOT ALL THE CONTENT THAT people have shared publicly is aimed at the somber Seder participant of yesteryear. For those seeking a lighter touch, artist Will Deutsch has shared irreverent comic material about the Passover experience with unique drawings. Sharon Rosenzweig’s “The Comic Torah” also uses humor to tell the story of the Exodus. The more physically inclined could check out Yoga guru Marcus Freed’s regimen of preseder sun salutations.
“Unless something is hateful or absolutely inappropriate, I try not to take it off the site,” explains Levinson. Although she thought twice about it, Levinson even allowed a photograph of a real-life cattle plague to remain online.
“It has relevance for somebody,” she notes.
The inclusivity policy means the site is attractive not only to traditional and progressive Jewish users, but also to the unaffiliated, a population that Levinson divides into two categories. The first category, composed of people with a strong Jewish identity but no specific synagogue, are relatively easy to reach since they keep up with Jewish community news. The other group, who are less Jewishly involved, present more of a challenge, she says. With Passover on the way, Levinson is betting that even these truly unaffiliated Jews will look online for ways to make the holiday rituals more meaningful.
With 1,000 visitors logging on in the website’s first week, Levinson notes that there are a growing number of visitors, and she expects 30,000 through the Passover season.
Responses from users of the site have been enthusiastic so far, Levinson reports.
Many are already using the site to create family Haggadot. The fact that content can be saved directly on the website means family members in different locations can all access the material and work on it in tandem.
Cori Chascione Widen, 25, lives in Israel and does programming and recruitment for a MASA Israel Journey program. She is collaborating with family members in the United States to create a family Haggada.
Many of the pictures and texts she shares on the site relate to Israel and Zionism, including original photographs of IDF soldiers taken when Widen served in the army, from 2007 to 2009.
“Israel provides new ways to relate to Passover and freedom,” she tells The Report.
She chose to include pictures of the IDF because it is the reason that we can maintain our freedom. She adds, “On the one hand, it is the price we pay for freedom, and on the other hand, it is a privilege to defend this land.”
In addition to the Israel-related content, Widen has chosen to use the time-honored Seder text, both in Hebrew and in English, which she found on the website. To this traditional base, she has added some simple explanations of Seder customs as well as more modern commentary, all of which she also took from the site. A final finishing touch involves a two-page Haggada introduction with family history, including the story of her great, great-grandparents’s flight from Poland to Russia to escape the draft and to preserve their Jewish heritage.
Although Widen explained that the less traditional commentary available on the site didn’t appeal to her, she found lots of material that did.
“That’s the beauty of the site. You can keep all the traditional elements of the text and just add the things you want,” she says.
“Building a Haggada is like rewriting the story of Passover as it pertains to you.”
LEVINSON SAYS THAT SHE hopes that the website will become an educational resource, used to help teens write their Passover narratives. She recently gave a workshop to educators from the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv partnership founded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in 1997 on how to use the site. It is perfect for teens because using a computer is like breathing for them, she notes. She envisions young people being asked to create a personal narrative responding to the texts they find on the site. The wealth of materials online means young people can encounter a diversity of approaches, and then find their own path within that.
Besides working with educators, one of Levinson’s main goals for the coming year is to have the site translated into Hebrew. Recent funding from the Schusterman Family Foundation’s Jewish New Media Innovation Funds, which awarded some $500,000 to nine digital media projects, should help her accomplish this.
She adds that users have already been vocal in letting her know how to improve the site’s functions. In response to requests, the site will expand its keyword search function.
Levinson also aims to add more content on food equality and more political texts relating to Israel, both of which were requested by current users.
Although the site is currently being used mostly by American Jews, Levinson’s vision extends far beyond that. Her first efforts at outreach have been through the ROI community, but she has her sights set on recruiting people in international Jewish communities to contribute material and take the site to a global level.
“I do see it being used by users all over the world. I think it will have a ripple effect,” she says.