by Joelle Asaro Berman and Marci Soifer
Passover is a unique moment. As we learn every year from the hundreds of Birthright Israel alumni who host Seders for their friends through NEXT’s Passover initiative, the holiday provides young adults with a whole new space in which to explore identity, experiment with tradition, and build community.
What moves and motivates these young adults to create their own Passover experiences, and what can we learn from their stories? We dug through a trove of qualitative data contained in hosts’ post-Seder surveys to find out. Their stories illuminated important lessons and questions for the entire field of engagement. Here is what we found:
1. Young adults feel a personal sense of responsibility for creating a Passover experience for their peers.
Hosts tell us they feel motivated to create a comfortable, accessible, and lively space in which their peers can celebrate and learn about Passover. Birthrighters express a deep sense of responsibility to provide for others, and many say that, if not for their Seders, their friends would not experience the holiday.
As one host from San Francisco, California mentions, “I originally thought it was going to be too much work, but changed my mind when my best friend mentioned she really had nowhere to go. I felt like it was an opportunity to step up and give my friends a chance to celebrate this holiday.”
It’s clear that these hosts see themselves as connectors to and conveners of their peers, and feel a responsibility to continue this tradition for their community. They take matters into their own hands – in this case, through the vehicle of a do-it-yourself experience.
What kinds of other vehicles can we create for young adults to act on this sense of responsibility? How can we further identify and support the young leaders in our midst who are building micro-communities of their own?
2. Hosts use their Seders to forge a personal connection to their tradition and heritage.
As the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, tells us, increasing numbers of Jewish millennials cite some level of religious disaffiliation while still experiencing a strong connection to Jewish “ancestry, ethnicity, or culture.” Many of the Birthrighters we hear from identify Passover as a key moment to connect with tradition, and explore their Jewish identity in the process of creating and leading their Seder.
They do this in divergent ways. Some Birthrighters speak of using the Seder as their chance to break with the religious practices of their parents, and invent their own practice. Others see Passover as a way to call on memories from their family traditions, and own those traditions by practicing them as adults.
Both of these inclinations lead to a similar result: unique, content-rich experiences where rituals are reimagined, memories are formed, haggadot are created anew, and young adults see themselves (often for the first time) as facilitators and educators who claim ownership of the Passover experience. As one host from Nashville, Tennessee shares: “The best part of my Seder was the opportunity to go through the haggadah and consider how to enhance the relevance of each element of the Seder. I felt actively engaged in the meaning of the holiday rather than a more passive consumer of words on a Maxwell House page.”
Another host from Los Angeles, California proudly relates: “I found out that out of everyone I hosted, it was 10 people’s first Seder and they said that they all learned something!”
While reading through their stories, we find so many great examples of Birthrighters’ innovative Seder practices. Their voices and stories come together in our Passover resource, which we hope will inspire NEXT Seder hosts’ Passover experiences this year.
How can we empower young adults to create even more personally meaningful rituals and traditions? What are we doing to move young adults to explore and claim a Judaism of their own?
3. Sharing the Seder with friends – and particularly non-Jewish friends – reflects hosts’ normative social behaviors.
Preparing and creating a Passover Seder is one thing; sharing it with others is what makes it especially meaningful and a vehicle for community building. Overwhelmingly, the hosts describe the joy and appreciation that comes with watching their friends engage seriously with the Seder, and the intense pride they feel as a result.
One big thing stood out: Hosts explain that Passover provides them with the opportunity to involve their friends from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. This makes the experience a natural extension of their social behaviors. Young adults do not draw lines between their Jewish friends and friends from other backgrounds; in fact, they express how meaningful it is to include friends from all backgrounds in a Jewish experience.
As one host from St. Louis, Missouri relates, “The best part of the Seder was when we were making our way through the haggadah and one of my non-Jewish friends stopped us to ask a question. At that moment, it was clear that everyone in our group, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was engaged in the ceremony. It was an amazing opportunity for all of us to come together and learn more about one anothers’ traditions.”
We know that peer-based experiences are effective vehicles for Jewish education and identity building, and we must remember that millennials exhibit a desire to blend various peer groups in ways that previous generations have not.
How can we help young adults to encounter Jewish life in authentic ways that account for the reality of their diverse social circles?
The freedom to create a holiday celebration on one’s own terms, in one’s home, opens up a world of possibilities for young adults. We wonder: How can the behaviors that Birthrighters exhibit during these holidays inform our efforts to create more outlets for year-round Jewish experiences? What else can we do as a community to spark this sense of ownership and engagement with one’s identity and tradition?
We know that the professionals and volunteers who work hard to engage young adults are grappling with these questions every day. We encourage everyone to share examples of what’s working, new ideas, and how we can support you. By experimenting with innovative strategies to engage Birthrighters and their peers, we hope to unearth more avenues through which they can explore Jewish life.
Joelle Asaro Berman is the Director of Communications at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Marci Soifer is NEXT’s Director of Operations and Planning.