Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Seder 5776 Recap

 April 28, 2016

Seder 5776 Recap

Seder KearaGabriel and I were nervous until everyone was seated. The hotel was being very strict as to the number of participants we could have.

We had worked for weeks on the program, getting speakers, layout of the hall, placements and more. I had already consulted the previous year as to what is the minimum of the Hagadah that must be performed according to Jewish law. As people filled the hall there was a palpable energy in the air. For many years, the Seder had been exclusively for needy families and individuals, who all participated at no cost to them, many of them coming mainly for the meal. This year, we reserved many spots for those willing to pay (a subsidized fee). The mix gave it a much greater community feel.

Finally, most of the guests had arrived and we were ready to start. It is no simple thing to have your voice heard by 280 people sitting at their tables, and with no microphone. But we pulled it off. There were a few key principles:

  • Keep it short
  • Keep it moving
  • Keep it interesting
  • Keep changing
  • Sing whenever possible.

We sang the Shalom Aleichem for Friday night (each verse only once). Kiddush, check. However, the wine glasses were particularly big, and as per Jewish law I drank at least half of it. On an empty stomach I immediately felt it. We had ten washing stations in the hallway, which most of the guests used. Dipped the potato in the salt water, check. Broke the Matza, check. Sang Ha Lachma, check. Then our first speaker took the floor, young Mica Kreiner. She enthralled the audience with her succinct and powerful speech. I immediately noticed that more people paid attention when our guests spoke than when I spoke – guests speakers – good.

Ma Nishtana was sung with great gusto by children and adults alike. Sang Avadim Hayinu. Spoke briefly about the 4 sons, then talk from our next speaker, Marcos Israel, an eloquent and seasoned community leader. Sang Vehi Sheamda, performed the Makot in simultaneous Spanish translation and then the final guest speaker, community veteran Simon Lamstein with a moving tale of how an Annus (converso) family kept Pesach. At the point where we mention how in every generation an enemy rises to destroy the Jewish people, we remembered David Fremd z”l, who had been murdered in Paysandu, and sang his favorite song, Hine Ma Tov, emotionally.

Boisterous singing of Dayenu. Loud proclamation of Halleluyah. Massive declaration of “Pesach, Matza, uMarror.” 2nd large cup of wine. Now it really hit me and I’m starting to see double. I think I conducted the rest of the Seder half drunk, which might have contributed to its great success.

Everyone returned to the hallway to wash their hands, including a special guest, my friend Cardinal Daniel Sturla, the Archbishop of Montevideo, who sat next to me. I instructed the participants not to speak between washing hands and eating the Matza. Someone approached him after he washed hands to engage him in conversation and he signaled that he couldn’t speak. At least one person knew how to follow instructions well. He thoroughly enjoyed the Seder, participated fully and came with his own bright red kippah, which is used only by Cardinals.

People seemed to actually take the commandment of eating Matza seriously, as they did the Marror and Hillel’s sandwich. Then came the main event most people were waiting for: dinner.

The catering by Burcatovsky was superb. After the first course of gefilte fish, delicious chrein and a selection of salads, I had everyone stand up and exit the hall. In the hallway, the large crowd was blocked by a wall of blue (tablecloths). With suitable introduction the wall parted, allowing the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptians and make it back to their tables in time for a hot and tasty matza ball soup, as we sang Siman Tov Umazal Tov in celebration.

The main course was outstanding, of stuffed chicken, potato kugel and tzimes, with one participant claiming it was “the best chicken he had eaten in years.” This was followed by a delightful fruit salad concoction.

We ate the Matza of the Afikoman. Sang the beginning of Birkat Hamazon, had the 3rd cup (at this point I switched to a mixture of grape juice as I had trouble keeping my balance), sang Echad Mi Yodea fully, 4th cup (also a mix), sang Leshana Haba and released everyone to go home.

The responses of gratitude and appreciation were immediate. Many, many people approached me and thanked me for the best Seder they had experienced in many years. They were pleasantly surprised by what they expected would be a worse experience than what they might have had at home. The place was great, the food was fantastic and they liked the conduction and the program very much.

Though there are already plans to build on the success of this Seder and have an even better one next year, a part of me also prays as we do in the Hagadah: Beshana Haba’a Beyerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem.

 

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