The Legs of a Seder Table are a Model for Jewish Learning

By Miriam Abramovich

As Passover arrives, we immerse ourselves in the many phases of preparation – dusting off Hagaddot, combing through digital resources, and tweaking recipes (vegan gluten-free matzah balls anyone?). When setting my Passover table, I think of Avram Infeld’s model of a 5 Legged Table, which encourages each person to choose no less than three of five principles to express their Jewish identity: memory, family, covenant, Israel, and Hebrew. Infeld speaks to the great challenge of setting a Jewish table that is “unified without being uniform.”

In Jewish Buffalo, in addition to preparing for Passover, our new Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning is also immersed in preparations for launching a new educational model where all Jews, their friends and partners of other faiths, and those exploring Judaism, have access to Jewish living and learning experiences that help them thrive.

Just as Infeld suggests that each five-legged table is an expression of those who are at it, we hope to create an educational ‘table’ where every Jewish living and learning experience is an expression of those who pull up a seat. Inspired by Infeld’s construct and the Passover Seder, we are designing Jewish living and learning experiences with at least three of the following five educational ‘legs’: order, customization, tension, engagement, and joy.

Order: Seders have a beginning and an end, and a framed-out middle. At Passover we do not shoulder the burden of crafting a learning experience from scratch. The Hagaddah is our study companion, a road-map and lesson plan that provides both a guide to Halacha and a Jewish historical narrative. For the learning experiences supported by the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning, we offer a framework of substantive Jewish content so that whomever is facilitating learning, will have a “Haggadah” to teach from.

Customization: No two Seders are the same. As Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander write in New American Haggadah: “As you read these words – as our people’s ink stained fingers turn its wine-stained pages – new Haggadahs are bring written. And as future Jews at future tables read those Haggadahs, other Haggadahs will be written. New Haggadahs will be written until there are no more Jews to write them.” We are challenged to continually reshape the Hagaddah to ensure that its lessons are relevant to our modern life experiences as Jews and as humans. At the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning, one of our tenets is creating a community that is empowered to shape Jewish learning experiences so that they are personally relevant and meaningful.

Tension: Endemic to the Seder experience is tension at the table. There are matzah crumbs and spilled wine, one guest is feeling too hot or too squeezed in, another is anxious about introducing a new life partner, a toddler is having a tantrum (or their parents are). And many experience the common struggle to remember the tunes, read the words, or wrestle with a challenging question. But this is what we love about Seder: the beautiful balance of order and disorder. At the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning, we know that people learn best when they are both supported but also challenged. Consequently, we aim to support learning experiences that help people achieve a state that psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘Flow’ – where people are in the sweet spot of being challenged with a learning that they don’t have yet, but is within their grasp.

Engagement: Another compelling element of Seder is that all are welcome. We are encouraged to open our homes and invite those who are “hungry” for connection and meaning. It’s a rare space of entry for someone who has a limited Jewish background and can be a safe space for someone who is Jewishly insecure. The entire framework of a Seder is based on curiosity; everyone has permission to question, and everyone around the Seder table can be both teacher and student. Jewish learning should also serve that same engagement and curiosity. That is why the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning supports different learning experiences for the full range of people at different stages of their own Jewish learning pathway, knowing that people come to Jewish learning opportunities with questions, but can also be teachers to each other.

Joy: The best Jewish experiences are often the most joyous. At the Seder one can experience song, laughter, love, growth, acceptance, and the satisfaction that comes with eating a great meal. Through these moments of joy and drinking wine (the symbol of joy), we overflow with delight at our Seder tables. Joyful Jewish learning can happen in any setting and is not bound by walls or formality. The Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning creates and supports learning that transcends some of the traditions of didactic learning, where it’s sometimes hard to find that joy.

Our goal for all of our Jewish living and learning experiences is to have at least three of these educational ‘table legs’ to ensure our initiatives are joyful, infused with substantive Jewish content, and accessible.

So, as you welcome friends, family, and strangers to your Passover tables, we hope that you embrace the chaos, craft moments of relevance and flow, and dive deep into the joyful retelling of the rich narrative that has shaped our people – and you just might include some of these ‘table legs’ to help you get there.

Miriam Abramovich is Director of Buffalo’s Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning.