This Year, Four New Questioners Join the Seder

The holiday of Pesach is an opportunity. It is a time of going through the cupboards and drawers, getting rid of what is no longer necessary, and making space for fresh possibilities. It is a time during which we are reminded to ask ourselves and each other difficult questions, and to create space for the youngest, most wide-eyed, and most curious among us, whether we consider them wise, wicked, simple, or uninvolved, and hear their questions. Not only must we hear their questions, but we must take those questions so seriously that they delay our matza-ball soup and brisket for hours.

The Seder famously begins with the Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions, traditionally asked by the youngest participant, and the rest of the long evening involves exploring the answers to these, and other, questions. The questions unpack the evening’s rituals, which exist to help us retell the Biblical Passover story – we eat matzah to remember that our ancestors had to hurry out of Egypt, and did not have time for the bread to rise; we eat marror to remember the bitterness of their slavery; we dip our food multiple times, and recline in our seats, to celebrate our current freedom, our ability to eat and sit and be as we like.

But there is something deeper in these questions. In Tractate Pesachim Chapter 10, Mishnah 5, Raban Gamliel is famously quoted as saying: In every generation, it is your obligation to see yourself as if you had personally gone out from Egypt. This obligation, to personalize the story of the Exodus, hints at the purpose of the holiday. We tell our communal story to challenge and re-explore our current state – both personally, and as a community.

Reframed in this way, the Mah Nishtana can be read in the following way: On all nights, we eat the puffed up bread that allows us to avoid difficult questions; tonight, we go back to our state of “matzah,” pure, unadorned, and take a hard look at who we are, where we are, where we are going, and where we could be going. On all nights we eat a variety of vegetables, but tonight only marror; tonight, we unearth what is bitter, or challenging, in ourselves and in our community, and, despite the taste, we acknowledge it. On all nights, we dip only once, if at all, into difficult issues; tonight, we “double-dip,” and embrace the hard conversations. On all nights, we are in solid control of how we present ourselves, to each other, to the broader world; tonight we must all recline, relax, and embody a new posture, a posture of possibility.

In this spirit, UpStart Bay Area feels that it is especially timely and celebratory to present its new cadre of “UpStarters,” emerging Jewish organizations which have asked difficult questions, identified “metzarim,” narrow communal places, and are seeking to open new passageways to living a vibrant Jewish life:

  • Moishe House, led by Executive Director David Cygielman, is creating a network of vibrant Jewish communities throughout the world for young Jewish adults in their 20s. They provide rent subsidies for “Moishe Houses” in which 3-5 young Jews live and produce 10-15 Jewish programs per month. There are approximately 21 Moishe Houses in the US, and another 10 around the globe.
  • Zeek, led by Executive Director Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, provides a media platform for facing the most pressing issues facing Judaism today. Their work acts as a catalyst for conversations about the Jewish tomorrow in print, online, and in person.
  • In the Market, led by Executive Director Rebecca Calahan Klein, will inspire, educate and organize the Bay Area Jewish community to connect Judaism’s teachings to being a catalyst for the development of a local, sustainable food system-expanding to other regions over time. Strong potential synergies exist between this nascent project and current UpStarter Wilderness Torah.
  • Bay Area Sustainable Kosher Meats, led by CEO Mickey Davis, plans to create a Jewish owned and operated integrated farm and animal processing facility that merges commitments to Halachah and care for the environment, animals, workers, and health. They will provide sustainable, ethical, animal products for the Greater Bay Area; educate the local Jewish community about ways to fulfill Jewish ethical requirements in diet and agriculture; establish and operate to support the adaptation of such ventures in other communities.

UpStart looks forward to welcoming these new individuals and their ideas to the community conversation, to supporting their work and their questions, and anticipates that they will enrich our communal story, as it continues to unfold.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities.