With the sheer amount of work that can be involved in hosting a Passover seder — especially when the guest list reaches several dozen — Joan Hersch might have been eager to hand over the responsibility. But she wasn’t.
Hersch felt all kinds of emotions when, just before the High Holidays, a younger cousin told her she’d looked tired during the previous Passover. Maybe she’d consider letting someone else do the heavy lifting?
It had been 27 years since Hersch, a 65-year-old who lives in Langhorne, took over the family seder from her Aunt Bea, who died just a few years ago. She waited until just a month ago to finally consent to letting her niece host the first seder, which begins the Passover holiday on Monday, March 25, in her Princeton, N.J., home.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around not doing it because it was a sign of my own mortality,” said Hersch, education director of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, who is married to the shul’s rabbi emeritus, Howard Hersch.
Ultimately, she told herself that “we are not doing it for now, we are doing it for tomorrow. If no one else wants to do it, then we haven’t done our job.”
At its core, the seder is designed to transmit the story of the Exodus from Egypt from one generation to another. As parents try to engage their children in the rituals and discussions, the hope is that the youngsters will internalize the messages of freedom and responsibility in their own lives and, eventually, teach what they have absorbed to their own offspring.
For centuries, as parents have grown older, they have turned over the duty of hosting and leading the seder to their children or another younger family member. For many, the transition marks a symbolic and emotional passing of the torch. In some ways, it is almost like a major life-cycle event, marking the passage of time, evoking something that is both timeless and ethereal.
In today’s Jewish environment in which continuity is far from a given, some might say that the seder matters more than ever before. According to the 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” some 76 percent of respondents said they take part in a seder. That’s six points higher than the next most popular ritual, lighting Chanukah candles.
Both in the United States and Israel, the Passover seder is, by far, the most observed Jewish home ritual. But these days, the crowd around the seder table is increasingly diverse, with intermarriages bringing plenty of non-Jewish family members into the conversation.
At the same time, many children who have grown more religiously observant will be hosting parents and extended family members who might be somewhat less enamored with the ritualistic aspects of the evening.
That’s the case for newlyweds Jaclyn and Ilya of Bala Cynwyd. The couple, who both work as biomechanical engineers, has decided not only to host their first seder, but also to have their kitchen kashered just in time for the holiday.
“It’s something that we wanted to do for a while” and hosting a Passover seder provided the motivation, said Jaclyn Rakhman.
Jaclyn Rakhman, 28, who grew up in Yardley, said her family often had abbreviated Passover meals, though sometimes they had full-fledged affairs at other relatives’ homes. As Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ilya Rakhman’s family had no tradition of sitting down and conducting a seder themselves.
The young couple has become active in Aish HaTorah, a congregation and outreach center under Orthodox auspices. Jaclyn will be leading the seder and, as the youngest family member present, also reciting the four questions.
“I will try to strike a balance for my family, knowing that they are really waiting to get to the dinner,” she said. “I will try to tell the story and make it relevant — and get through the highlights.
“I don’t want to alienate them. I don’t want to make them think we have gone off the deep end,” she added. “The whole reason we are doing what we are doing is we love being Jewish and we want to share that.”
For Joan Hersch, part of the reason she couldn’t give up hosting seders — or consent to going to a restaurant or catering hall — is that she and her husband will only go to a fully kosher home and few of their non-Orthodox relatives maintain one.
Though the first night won’t be at their house, Hersch and her husband, the rabbi, will still have a smaller group over on the second night. And on the first night in Princeton, N.J., the rabbi will still be leading the proceedings, and Joan Hersch is making the soup and matzah balls. She’s also helping with the seating arrangements.
She’ll be passing on Aunt Bea’s red soup pot , which has been at every family seder for decades. (According to family lore, the cookware has never actually produced a decent batch of matzah balls.)
The passing of the torch appears to have had an unintended consequence, namely a smaller turnout: 31 people have responded for the seder, 20 fewer than were at last year’s gathering. Perhaps, Hersch pondered, it takes time to develop clout as the matriarch.
“I want them to say, ‘Look what we created,’ ” she said of the children who will be doing the seder. “The Torah, our history, our story. It has meaning.”
This year will also mark a new beginning for the brand new rabbinic couple who now leads Brothers of Israel, Rabbi Aaron Philmus and his wife, Valerie. The parents of a 5-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy have spent the past decade living in New York, Jerusalem and San Francisco. She’s originally from Massachusetts and he’s from New Jersey.
This marks the first year that they will host their respective families in their own home. They are expecting 23 people, including four grandparents.
She went to culinary school and he’s a rabbi so hosting a seder shouldn’t be a problem, right?
“So the actual cooking does not overwhelm. I’m used to organizing large meals,” said Valerie Philmus, 35. “It’s the cleaning and making sure you have enough plates — organizing all that stuff —that is a little bit stressful.
“I’m excited for this year. We’ve been talking about coming back east for so long,” she said.
This is the first year that Harold and Faith Schreiber of Upper Gwynedd won’t be having the seder in their home, but they don’t seem too upset about passing the honor on to two nieces, who live nearby.
Faith Schreiber said that hosting a Passover seder “was hard when I was 25, it was hard in my 70s. I used to joke that I would trade 10 Thanksgiving dinners for one Passover seder.”
The couple, longtime members of Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, has six grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 21. A few of the grandkids will be attending seders at their college Hillel, a fact that makes the Schreibers think that they did something right at their own family seders.
“I’m sure it has rubbed off,” she said.
Harold Schreiber noted that he’s “not sure what the magic” of the Passover seder is. Maybe, he mused, it’s the retelling of an age-old story in modern times. “I think what they enjoy more than anything is the Jewish gathering of the family.”