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Non-traditional Seders Are Way for Jews to Reach out to Others

April 9, 1990
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When Sally Auerbach answered the Four Questions of Passover at a seder last week, her eyes flashed, her body swayed and her hands replied with exhilaration.

Auerbach, who is deaf, gave her reply in sign language at a seder designed to bring deaf and hearing Jews together.

Across town, at a “Seder of Understanding,” 80 blacks, Asians, Ukrainians and other non-Jews read from a Haggadah quoting Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Choruses of “Dayeinu” and “Down by the Riverside” rang out at yet another seder last week, this one joining young parishioners of a black Brooklyn church with students of a Jewish day school.

The parallel between the biblical exodus from Egypt and the flight of Jews from the Soviet Union was obvious for several recent immigrants at a seder held for recent, arrivals, some of whom were celebrating Passover for their first time ever.

Such non-traditional seders are becoming common as American Jews expand their community and as they seek better relations with non-Jews.

The “Freedom Seder” for the Soviet Jews, held by the American ORT Federation, was Galyna Polliskoya’s first ever. She left Kiev with her daughter and mother in July.

“I have a daughter, I want her to know all the Jewish customs, to know that she is a Jew.”


Because the Safronsky family shared a common kitchen with their non-Jewish and often anti-Semitic neighbors, they were never able to celebrate Passover in the open, she explained.

“We tried celebrating very quietly,” Neyla Safronsky said. “Now I know exactly how to celebrate this celebration of freedom.”

The seder at which Sally Auerbach answered the Four Questions in sign language was held by the United Synagogue of America, the association of Conservative congregations.

“This is not a seder for the deaf, but with the deaf,” stressed Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the association.

The seder is a model for use by Conservative synagogues throughout North America. It included Haggadahs with sign-language translations of the Four Questions, blessings and songs.

In the past two years, United Synagogue has held model seders for Jews who are homeless and who have AIDS.

“We, as Jews, are told to reach out on Passover to bring people in,” Epstein said. “Judaism and the seder have to be designed in such a way to make people more comfortable.”

For the children of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, on New York’s heavily Jewish Upper West Side, and of the 224-year-old Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the seder at the Manhattan school was proof that “races can come together and share their feelings and beliefs on different things,” said 13-year-old Ray Bahat, who is Jewish.

(Contributing to this report were Susan Gilman and Diane Zorcik of The New York Jewish Week.)

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