Everybody’s b’Seder

Sometimes finding a place at the Seder table is more than just connecting with friends and family.

A GROUP of students poses with Jeff Seidel (center right) outside the Jewish Student Information Center (photo credit: COURTESY WWW.JEFFSEIDEL.COM)
A GROUP of students poses with Jeff Seidel (center right) outside the Jewish Student Information Center
The cleaning. The shopping. You just can’t be neutral about Passover. There is an unmistakable electricity mixed with tension in the air, as people try to “get it all done.”
The climax, of course, is the Seder.
Sitting around the table with loved ones and friends from near and far, conversations crescendo with smiles and reminisces. Passover, especially the Seder, is overflowing with family and nostalgia.
“Not everybody has somewhere to be for the Seder,” says Avraham Ivgy, founder and coordinator of the Kulanu Mesubin program, which connects the elderly with nearby Seders and is run each year on countrywide basis by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. “We have elderly citizens, sometimes living alone, and at times even couples who don’t have children living nearby. At times, people in the area aren’t in contact with them. They’d like to participate in a Seder, but don’t know where to find one.”
Goldie Sternbuch is the assistant director of the Meir Panim organization that runs the Hakol Beseder program, which tries to match people in need of an invitation to a Seder and families willing to host. She agrees that people don’t always have where to go, but adds that frequently it’s hard to know who they are. “We had a story of a family... and they called in and said, ‘We have room for four or five people.’ The coordinator said ‘OK, what’s your address?’ They gave him the address and he looked on the list of the people in need, and he told them, ‘There’s somebody in your building that really needs help.’ They just couldn’t believe it. ‘No way, there’s no way this family is needy.’” Although incredulous, the neighbors were more than willing to help. Just one question hung in the air: How could they be tactful, so as not to embarrass their neighbors? After careful thought, the potential hostess knocked on the door and told the family that her kids had planned to come for the Seder and couldn’t make it. She asked them if they could join her family for the Seder instead, and they agreed. Several days later, the hotline coordinator called to tell the family that he hadn’t managed to find them a place for the Seder. “‘That’s OK, everything worked out,’” the family responded.
“The idea is to have people become aware of what’s going on around them,” says Sternbuch. “Someone you know may have nice clothes, but may actually be going through a difficult period.
They might also be socially excluded.
It’s not always a matter of poverty.
Sometimes people are living alone or elderly or helpless for whatever reason.
“Open your eyes and take a look.
That’s really the idea behind Hakol Beseder.”
TZIVIA WUENSCH hosts university students through the Jeff Seidel Jewish Student Information Centers and sees overseas university students in Israel having a different kind of need at holiday time.
“We’ve hosted almost every Friday night since we arrived in Israel over 14 years ago,” says Wuensch. “We can host as many as 25 at Shabbat dinner.”
Wuensch started hosting guests at her Seder several years ago. “We had always gone to my in-laws in Orlando for the Seder.
Being that my in-laws moved to Israel a few years ago, we made our Seder here.”
Wuensch was apprehensive about hosting for Seder. “It’s not a ‘Shabbat Eve party,’” she explains. “The Seder is long and the content is heavy. You don’t get to the meal for a long time. I love having guests Friday night – it’s beautiful and fun. I just didn’t know how our guests would manage an Orthodox Seder.”
Wuensch and her husband, Yossi, hosted four students at their first Seder they made in Israel. They warned their guests ahead of time that the Seder is different than a Friday night meal. “We explained that it would take a long time to get to the food. When they came, we had each guest make their own Seder Plate. We wanted them to feel involved.
We also made sure to have English Haggadot, and they all asked the ‘Ma Nishtana’ in English.
“The Seder was incredible. There was a lot of emotion. There were a lot of questions.”
Was answering their questions difficult? “My husband’s great,” says Wuensch.
“He knows how to explain things and make it fascinating.”
Seidel, who sent the students to the couple, is one of the most well-known connectors of lost guests and willing hosts. Small in stature but always dressed in a shirt, tie and jacket, Seidel made aliya at the end of 1981. He has been meeting students and tourists at the Western Wall on Friday night, and arranging for Orthodox families in the area to host them for a meal, since he arrived in Israel.
“There’s a real need,” he explains. “Many of these kids want to have an experience, to be inspired.”
Seidel has developed many projects over the years, and has not ignored Passover.
“I don’t get as many kids calling or signing up for a Seder,” he points out.
“The religious students either go home for Passover, stay by relatives or their study programs make arrangements for them. Many of the non-religious kids take advantage of the long vacation and go to Europe or Russia or other countries to tour. If I have anywhere from 120 to 150 every Friday night, on Passover there are maybe 70 or 80 who need a place.”
Seidel has not been sitting idle. He has been very adaptive and followed the students all over the world. Thus, his two innovative projects: Worldwide Passover Hospitality and the Jewish Traveler Information Guide.
Accordingly, you can fill out an online form with your information and what country you’ll be traveling in, and the Student Information Center will send you contact information and help you find a Seder in the area you’ll be touring.
The online traveler’s guide has updated contact information for over 50 countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia, with countries including China, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Algeria, Finland, Ukraine and Croatia. For the students who stay, the Student Information Center provides an inspirational Seder experience.
“It’s a very personal experience,” says Wuensch. “One girl last year was crying by the end of the Seder. She had come from a religious home, and she missed it.”
SOMETIMES, SOCIAL need and financial need come together. Osnat Ben- Yishai of Lod called the Meir Panim hotline two years ago because she wanted to host a lone soldier for the Seder.
“My oldest son was in the army,” she explains. “I wanted to surprise him and have another soldier at the table.”
Meir Panim called and asked what kind of guests she was interested in having, and Ben-Yishai responded, “Whoever you want to send is fine.” A few days before Passover the coordinator called and told Ben-Yishai that there was a couple in the area who would like to attend the Seder, and told her the name. “Maybe you know him,” the coordinator mentioned, “He works as a guard at the schools in your area.”
As she thought about the name, a little bell went off in her head. “Of course I know him! He’s the guard at my son’s school!” exclaimed Ben-Yishai. The coordinator suggested she call the guard and tell him she would be hosting him and his wife for the Seder. When Ben-Yishai called, she let him know whose mother she was. Her guest was so moved. “My wife and I couldn’t have asked for anyone better,” he told Ben Yishai.
How was the Seder? “Amazing. A typical Moroccan Seder with lots of food and tradition.”
“This project gives me so much strength,” says Manny Shalom, coordinator of the Meir Panim hotline for the past four years. “It’s a tremendous help for many people who have nowhere to be, feel left out, or are really in need financially.
The project barely costs anything, it’s almost completely run by volunteers every step of the way. Everything about it is meaningful.”
Shalom explains that some of his volunteers are at-risk teens who have been sent by social services to take calls on the hotline. “Sometimes these kids don’t really want to do the work, or they don’t understand the importance. I explain what to say, how to fill the questionnaire and little by little, they grow more enthusiastic about the project.
“The positive energy is contagious.”
TO DATE, over 6,500 families have called and asked to host this year. “I’d say that we’ll be able to place people with about 30 percent of the potential hosts,” Shalom continues.
When asked about screening, Shalom explains that they turn to Social Services to ask about each family they’re placing. Many times, the families and individuals are referred by the agency. “We work with quite a few single- parent families, lone soldiers and Holocaust survivors – but not only these groups.”
Over the phone, the intake volunteers ask host families about what kind of family/individual they’d like to host, their country of origin and family customs, if they are religious or non-religious, the ages of their children and whether they can provide sleeping arrangements.
“We try to make the best match we can and if possible, have everyone meet ahead of time to see if they feel comfortable.”
Do hosts need be aware of any issues in regard to opening up their Seder table to guests they don’t know? Wuensch can’t think of any real concerns. “Food is a bit of an issue. We are pretty stringent about what we eat on Passover, and it’s hard to produce the variety of foods that I would serve at a Friday night dinner.
But after all the wine, matza and maror, nobody’s all that hungry when we finally reach the meal anyway.”
Ben-Yishai loves the actual hosting, but adds, “When someone comes into my home, they come into my life, and sometimes I don’t set limits well.
I get too involved, especially if it’s someone that’s going through rough times. My husband needs to help me decide when I should balance things and detach.”
This year, Ben-Yishai has focused on people in her circle of acquaintances who don’t have family with whom to have a Seder, such as a divorced woman she had studied with and her daughter.
She would be willing to call Meir Panim in the future and be set up to host another family. “I like to constantly be doing and giving,” stresses Ben-Yishai.
“My family and friends are used to it. They call me the ‘surprise egg’ [referring to the chocolate covered eggs that have a surprise inside].”
When asked about tips for people who would like to host, Wuensch, who comes from a Chabad background, tells a story which has had a real impact on her. Several years ago, people came up with the idea that everyone should leave one chair empty at the Seder, in remembrance of those who perished in the Holocaust.
“When the Rebbe heard about this idea,” Wuensch explains emphatically, “he said, ‘No, don’t leave the chair empty. Fill it with someone. Just one person. That is absolutely the best way to remember them.’”