Approaching This Year’s Seder

Approaching This Year’s Seder

By Aliza Becker, Coordinator, Community Education and Support

Most of us in the Chicagoland Jewish community will gather for a Passover seder in a few weeks. This annual ritual often brings together different generations of family, friends, and sometimes new faces. This diversity can add to the richness of the experience.

At a time when the Israel-Hamas War has been dominating the concerns of much of our community, it presents us with some challenging moments. It behooves us to consider in advance if and how we might address the war at the seder table. Do we avoid discussion of the war altogether? Address it directly? Guide a discussion? Introduce themes of the war into the Passover rituals?

How will these decisions affect the evening’s dynamics and our ongoing connections/relationships? Do we intentionally relate the seder’s themes of justice and liberation to contemporary issues? Do we follow the traditional ceremony but allow space for participants to make those connections?

How might the presence of children, teens, young adults or other specific individuals impact our decisions?

What is Your Role as Host or Participant?

Whether host or participant, you may play a role in facilitating discourse around the war in advance of, during and after the seder. As the host, you could let participants/guests know ahead of time whether and how you’ll be including references to and/or discussion about the war during the seder. If you are a participant, you could reach out to the host to discuss your thoughts and perhaps offer your assistance.

Even if you decide to avoid discussion during the seder, the war may come up. If you are the host, or a guest who assumes a leadership role with the host’s blessing, it may be helpful to plan how you’ll manage the conversation. You also may want to consider how you’ll deal with your own feelings about the war as you sit with family and friends who may hold different perspectives.

Whether you prepare for an open discussion, hope to avoid the topic completely or intentionally bring some themes of the war into Passover rituals, here are some considerations and guidelines you might find useful.

Option: Prepare For a Discussion (Planned or Otherwise)

Enter into dialogue with an open mind and heart.

Set aside preconceived assumptions about others based on their age, gender, profession, denominational affiliation, political beliefs, etc.

Show respect and empathy for everyone.

Act with respect and empathy as you engage with others, no matter how much you might disagree with their point of view. It can be helpful to identify something positive to appreciate about each person you speak with, and if appropriate, to share it openly. This can help you resist the often-unaware tendency to demonize those you disagree with and provide support to anyone who feels attacked or disrespected because their perspective might be considered controversial.

Demonstrate a spirit of curiosity.

Show interest in what others have to say. Approach conversations with those who see things differently as an opportunity to learn and possibly reconsider your own assumptions. We can often sharpen our thinking and learn something new by engaging outside our like-minded bubble.

Encourage participation.

Extend a warm invitation to everyone who wishes to participate, while recognizing that not everyone may want to do so. They might not have fully formulated their opinions or may feel uncomfortable speaking on the topic. Some may need to listen for a while before speaking and some may need time to build up the courage to speak. You might say, “Is there anyone who hasn’t spoken yet, who would like to speak?”

Discourage domination or frequent interruptions.

Conversely, one or several people may dominate the conversation. While everyone won’t share equal time, you may want to encourage broad participation to the extent that people want to engage. You might say, “It’s been interesting to hear your opinion, I would also love to hear what others have to say. Can we move on for now?”

For the frequent interrupter, you might say, “I was wondering if we could let Jonathan finish without interruptions so we can fully understand what he is telling us.”

If the conversation becomes tense, calling for a timeout to read from the Haggadah, sing a song, tell a story from a past seder or suggest a lighter turn can make it easier for everyone to notice and appreciate the positive circumstances and purpose of gathering at the table.

Close the conversation.

At some point, you might decide to end the conversation. You may want to move on to something else, you may have reached an impasse, or it may have gone quite well and you are at a good transition point. You could say, “What do you say we wrap it up for now?” You might invite further conversation over dinner or after the seder for those who choose to stay.

Option: Keep the War off the Table

You might recommend to the host or to your guests that conversation on the war be avoided. Possible reasons include maintaining a spirit of unity, avoiding discomfort and/or emotional trauma, conveying inappropriate content to children and threatening long-established relationships. The drawback is that some guests may feel they are being censored or disallowed from bringing their authentic selves to the table. Alternatively, you might propose that the topic be avoided until the children are away from the table. You might say, “I would love to hear what you have to say. But can we postpone it until after the dinner or for another time?”

Option: Recognize War-Related Themes in Passover Rituals

This option would be most useful if you or your guests want to relate the seder’s core themes of justice and liberation to contemporary issues. As with every year, many individuals and organizations will be sharing readings and resources relating the themes of the holiday to current events. Here are just a few possible connections you might choose to highlight this year:

  • Point out that the bitter herb reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, which can be related to the pain and sorrow that the war has brought to so many.
  • As you break the matzo, draw parallels to the broken lives of the victims of the war.
  • Relate the story of enslaved Hebrews to the suffering of the hostages and that of displaced, injured and bereaved Palestinians, Israelis and others impacted by the war.
  • Broaden the ceremony to include a discussion around the theme of darkness in the plagues and how that darkness can affect us in times of war.

One valuable resource is a sermon by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-founder of Resetting the Table: Courageous Conversations Across Divides, in which she discusses the “intensifying darkness that blinds and separates those it engulfs from the world and from each other. In this darkness all are isolated, immobilized, and stuck . . .” Read the entire sermon here.

The war brings up all manner of feelings around antisemitism, anti-Israel prejudice, anti-Palestinian racism and the like. These are perfectly normal responses to a very difficult situation. If you want connection, support and to learn coping strategies to develop resilience during these challenging times, consider attending our online group on “Support During the War in Israel and Amidst Rising Antisemitism” (contact Bracha Jakofsky for information) or contact JCFS at or 855.275.5237 to request counseling.

I wish you and yours a most deep, peaceful and renewing Passover.

Passover resource list