Passover: Bayit Balev Haggadah inspires the young and old

A newly printed Haggadah crossed my desk that may be the most interesting Haggadah I have seen this year.

 Retirement home residents peruse the Bayit Balev Haggadah at the celebration of its release. (photo credit: LIOR DASKAL)
Retirement home residents peruse the Bayit Balev Haggadah at the celebration of its release.
(photo credit: LIOR DASKAL)

Every spring, a new selection of Passover Haggadot appears on physical and virtual bookshelves. There are scholarly Haggadot, family Haggadot and political Haggadot.

A quick perusal of the Amazon website illustrates a wildly disparate listing of popular versions currently available, including such unlikely titles as The Shakespeare Haggadah, The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah, the Curb Your Haggadah for fans of the Larry David comedy series, and the 30 Minute Seder Haggadah, alongside more traditional works.

Recently, a newly printed Haggadah crossed my desk that may be the most interesting Haggadah I have seen this year. It epitomizes the concepts of renewal and rejuvenation, which are central themes of Passover

Like most new Haggadah editions, this Haggadah is bright, attractive and colorful, and includes the complete Hebrew text of the Passover story in a readable typeface. Unlike others, however, it is not available for retail sale, nor are its creators particularly well known outside of their immediate families. In fact, the designers of this Haggadah are either in the first decade of their lives or in their later years. Moreover, this Haggadah does not contain any written commentary or explanations of the Passover rituals other than the standard Haggadah text. 

Yet, perhaps more than most, this Haggadah epitomizes the idea expressed in the verse from the Book of Exodus, in which Moses tells Pharaoh, “We will go with our young and with our old...” (Exodus 10:9). Unassumingly titled “The Passover Haggadah by Bayit Balev,” this new Haggadah was created by residents of the Bayit Balev Jerusalem retirement home located across the street from Sacher Park, in conjunction with two kindergarten classes that meet in its building. 

 Kindergarten students from the Bayit Balev building peruse the Haggadah at the celebration of its release. (credit: LIOR DASKAL) Kindergarten students from the Bayit Balev building peruse the Haggadah at the celebration of its release. (credit: LIOR DASKAL)

Bayit Balev is affiliated with Maccabi Healthcare Services and has numerous retirement residences throughout Israel. The branch located across from Sacher Park houses approximately 90 retirees from different backgrounds and with varying life experiences.

Malka Benziman has been a geriatric social worker for 40 years and has spent the past 14 years working at Bayit Balev Rehavia. 

“The people who live here come from different backgrounds and different life experiences,” she says. “There are very creative people who did many interesting things in their lives.”

Benziman adds that among the residents is a 101-year-old woman, and she adds that many residents are over 90.

“They are very active people,” she says.

Residents of Bayit Balev have been active and involved with numerous community projects over the years. 

This fall, two kindergarten classes – one for disabled children from the Jerusalem Variety Center for Child and Family Development and one municipal program – moved into the Bayit Balev building.

Due to the pandemic, children and senior adults were unable to mingle indoors. However, from the beginning of the school year until the weather turned cold, joint outdoor activities were regularly held with the residents and the kindergarten students.

Benziman explains that with the weather turning warm once again, programs between the kindergartners and residents of Bayit Balev have resumed.

She notes that residents utilize the skills they have acquired over a lifetime to teach the five-year-old kindergartners. 

“We wanted to use the talents of the older people to do something for the kids,” says Benziman. “We have one resident who is skilled in nature, so she is the nature teacher. She takes them to Sacher Park and teaches them about flowers and plants and birds.”

Another resident worked as an artist, and teaches the children to draw, she says. Still another was a math teacher, who now helps the youngsters with arithmetic.

“There is even an English-speaking resident at Bayit Balev,” she relates, “who ‘adopted’ an English-speaking kindergarten student who was not fluent in Hebrew.” 

THE SPECIAL relationship between the groups came into greater focus before Passover. Rabbi David Geffen, 83, who has lived in Bayit Balev for close to six years and is a longtime Jerusalem Post contributor, came up with the idea of creating a joint Haggadah.

“I know we have artists here whose work has been displayed,” he says. “I had no idea what approach would be taken by the teachers to the children, but I had complete faith in them.” 

Geffen himself has designed two Haggadot previously. In 1991, he edited a Russian and Yiddish Haggadah for Russian Jews attending Seders of the Conservative-Masorti congregations in Israel, the US and Canada, and in 1992 he compiled and edited the American Heritage Haggadah, which tells the history of Jewish American Passover observance, and features a replica of the Hebrew text from an American Haggadah printed in 1857.

Geffen provided another explanation as to his work on the Bayit Balev Haggadah. “Since I have such joy in using the Haggadah – usually other ones, because mine is too big – I wanted the children and their families and the residents who are artists and all the residents to have their own Haggadah which they have made.”

Born in Atlanta, Geffen still retains the remnants of a Southern drawl. His grandfather Rabbi Tobias Geffen was a leading Orthodox rabbi in the city for 60 years and was best known for his work in obtaining kosher certification for Coca-Cola. David Geffen received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, served as a US Army chaplain in Oklahoma, and was a congregational rabbi in Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1970s. He moved to Israel together with his wife, Rita, and their three children in 1977. 

When Geffen first approached Benziman about the multigenerational Haggadah project, she was skeptical that it could be completed in time for Passover. Geffen quickly contacted friends and relatives in the United States and Israel, and soon the project began to take shape, with responsibilities divided between the kindergarten students and the Bayit Balev residents.

“Malka is a moving spirit,” says Geffen.

ON APRIL 5, on a sun-dappled afternoon, the Bayit Balev Haggadah was officially unveiled outdoors to the residents of Bayit Balev, kindergarten students, the staff of both programs, parents, and the kindergarten teachers who had worked with the children in their Haggadah creation. 

Hagit Moshe, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, was in attendance, as well as members of the police band, who entertained the audience.

The finished product reflects the Haggadah’s truly multigenerational nature. Four Bayit Balev residents between the ages of 80 and 90 created colorful pictures and drawings. Kindergarten students illustrated other sections, and the pages are filled with colorful photos that depict the various joint programs conducted between the residents and the children.

Copies of the Haggadah were distributed to all who attended, and Benziman expects that residents and kindergarten children will use the Haggadah at their respective Passover Seders. 

In the Haggadah’s introduction, Geffen dedicated the Haggadah in memory of his wife, who died in 2021. 

Haim Karni, director of Bayit Balev, said, “The project we created conveys the essence of the message as it is written in the Haggadah – ‘And you shall explain to your child.’ This means passing down the values from generation to generation, and in our case from the grandparents’ generation directly to the generation of the grandchildren. “

Benziman says that the cooperation between the children and the senior adults at Bayit Balev is mutually beneficial. “The kids learn human relations from the older people. Being around them brings them into a calmer, more loving setting, and the children learn through this connection. The children receive a great deal of warmth from them. Often, the children find comfort from their relationships with their elders.” 

Illustrating the special relationship between the two groups, Benziman says that children brought Purim treats to the adult residents. In return, the residents purchased storybooks for the children and invited them to their apartments to give them the books.

“There was a give-and-take not only on a physical level but on an emotional level as well,” she adds.

For the residents of Bayit Balev, she continues, the opportunity to interact and spend time with the building’s youngest tenants is equally significant. “The kids provide the older people with a sense of value.”

Frequently, she points out, retired people living in retirement homes feel less needed. “Suddenly, someone needs you, and what you do has significance and worth, and this brings ‘new blood’ into the retirement home.” 

This Passover, Geffen will be using the Bayit Balev Haggadah at the Seder which he will celebrate with his son and his family in Ramat Hasharon, and says that the Haggadah will be used at the communal Seder at Bayit Balev for those who do not have family or are not able to travel.

“All of them will have the Haggadah,” he says, “and will use it with great joy.” 

The Bayit Balev Haggadah provides the necessary elements for a successful Passover experience: renewal, interaction between young and old and great joy. To paraphrase George and Ira Gershwin, “Who could ask for anything more?”