Passover at Berkeley Hillel: A Strategy for Excellence, Risk Taking, and Creativity

FindTheAfikomenBy Leah Kahn

Passover season is arguably the most hectic time in the Jewish calendar. For Hillels around the world, the details, logistics, and knowledge necessary to make it through the holiday amount to a full-scale theatrical production. To achieve excellence and prevent staff burnout before the end of the academic year is a challenge that requires thoughtful planning. Nevertheless, Passover should not be a time of year that Hillel staff dread; rather, it should be enjoyable and allow staff to shine and truly celebrate the holiday with students.

This year, at UC Berkeley Hillel, we challenged ourselves to create a unique Passover experience for our students. To that end, we started planning, recruitment (including a social media campaign that involved many hidden affikomen around campus), and brainstorming ideas for sedarim in December. Almost every staff member expressed interest in facilitating a seder. While not everyone committed to leading, they had time to formulate ideas well in advance of our deadline.

When Spring semester arrived, I felt it was my responsibility as the Senior Jewish Educator to build on that interest and empower our staff to have the self-confidence, enthusiasm and ability to lead the sedarim. I decided to experiment with a new methodology for our weekly staff learning time, with the following goals in mind: 1) Remind staff of the content and meaning behind the words and actions of key parts of the Haggadah; 2) Push them to start planning their individual sedarim well in advance of Passover; 3) Help each of them create a seder unique to their passions and interests; 4) Generate enthusiasm for the holiday. In order to maximize our team’s creativity and minimize stress while planning, I implemented this model five weeks before Passover. We spent half our time learning content and the other half in “design chavruta,” brainstorming in pairs how to adapt content to our unique sedarim. Every week, the staff were able to develop a clearer picture of how they wanted to facilitate sedarim that reflected their passions and interests. Some members enjoyed working in pairs so much they decided to lead their sedarim together.

While learning about the Four Children, we explored their respective questions and the Torah and Mishnah’s responses. For example, we compared and contrasted the responses of the rasha (rebellious) vs. the chacham (wise) and whether we felt these answers would truly engage the archetypal children and inspire them to learn more about the Exodus. Some staff members expressed discomfort with the suggested responses. However, I pushed them to use the text as an opportunity to think about the Four Children as four different types of learners and to approach the given advice as pedagogical responses to their questions. Then, taking the Haggadah’s advice, we broke up into our design chevruta to discuss the following question: How would we adapt our sedarim to make them relevant and interesting to the various learners in the room?

While exploring this question, we realized that if we tried to meet the various needs of numerous students in each seder, we would actually water down the uniqueness we were trying to achieve. Instead, we decided to offer four sedarim based on the traditional haggadah but each designed to provide an experience distinct from the others: a large Family-style seder; a late-night discussion seder; a Freedom Visual-arts seder; and a Yoga Seder. The whole team committed to leading a seder; even our Operations Manager found time despite her heavy workload!

By forcing ourselves to go beyond a “one-size-fits-all” model, we were able to provide experiences that spoke to a range of students’ Jewish identities. By fully committing to the distinct natures of each seder, we were able to offer four unique experiences that invited students to ask themselves “How do I want to experience Passover this year?” rather than, “What seder are my friends going to?”  And, by building in ample planning time to our hectic schedules, utilizing staff learning for content and implementation, recruiting through a creative social media campaign and challenging ourselves to take risks, we were able to deliver a high-quality experience.

Because we planned well enough in advance, we were able to include small, but important details, like thoughtful room arrangements, hors d’oeuvres in addition to karpas to keep hunger in check, and token rewards for those who found the affikomen. More importantly, we had time to push ourselves to take risks and not just create sedarim that were familiar to us, but to access our collective creativity and truly experiment. We went beyond our comfort zones to create something amazing, and we were able to model that for our students. And perhaps most importantly, because we were each prepared and passionate about our individual sedarim, we had fun!

We received feedback from the students like, “Best seder ever!” In the visual arts and in the yoga seder, student said the opportunity to engage with the traditional haggadah in a visual or kinesthetic way caused them to have a much deeper, personal understanding of what the seder is about. Some shared that they never actually thought about the meaning of the haggadah, but experiencing it in their bodies provided a deeper experience. Students from the late night seder enjoyed engaging in deep discussions, and felt they really engaged intellectually with their peers. At midnight, when staff was ready to leave, students were still socializing in the building, an indicator of success on a campus that has many parties every Friday night.

As Hillel professionals know, college students all carry many, many questions. The discussion about the Four Children causes readers to focus largely on the questions asked and the answers given, but there is another lesson to be learned: the obligation is on the parent/educator to stimulate questions within each child/student and provide a space for them to explore their questions so they can develop ownership in the narrative. In the case of the Four Children, it is not just about the story, but about being part of a community, a people. And the obligation lies with us to make it relevant. In the marketplace of competitive opportunities that is campus, we aimed to do just this – to invite students to choose an experience that would be personally meaningful, to engage with their questions, and to connect them to the Exodus story in a way that made our collective Jewish narrative and people relevant to their modern lives.

Leah Kahn is the Senior Jewish Educator at Berkeley Hillel, and is currently completing a Yoga and Jewish Spirituality Teacher Training.