Passover honors ancient tradition, hope for future

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Shaye Nielsen of Wolverine Lake holds her son, Eli Nielsen, 2, while she makes "manna trail mix" with her other son, Marcus Nielsen, 4, left, at Matzah Factory Extravaganza at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.

Passover, one of Judaism’s most widely celebrated holidays, starts at sundown Friday, and George Roberts plans to celebrate a “Friendseder” at his Detroit home.

He'll add a contemporary spin to a religious feast that features foods and rituals that symbolize the story of how Jewish forebears fled slavery in ancient Egypt.

“For me it was always an important thing to make these traditions that we’ve been doing for a few thousand years fun and accessible,” the 30-year-old said.

Updating customs is the norm as Jews across southeast Michigan launch Passover, which ends at nightfall on April 27.

Passover refers to the miracle in Judaism in which God “passed over” the Israelites’ homes during the final plague — death to firstborn sons — wrought after Pharaoh refused to free them from bondage as commanded.

The holiday leaves room for celebration, Jewish leaders say.

“We look back to an ancient story about liberation, but the whole point in celebrating the holiday is to think about what freedom means to us, and that everyone gets to experience that,” said Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills. “Freedom means being able to celebrate.”

#Friendseder by The Well, a Jewish community-building, education and spirituality outreach initiative, capitalizes on that spirit.

Inspired by the recent viral success of “Friendsgiving,” another effort to connect Jewish millennials with their traditions, the campaign encourages young adults to design and lead their own Passover Seders throughout April, not just the first two holiday nights as is typical, said Rabbi Dan Horwitz, The Well’s founding director.

Participants can sign up online and gain access to a unique Haggadah, or ritual guide, as well as webinars for tips on nailing everything from menus to dish placement. They’re encouraged to share photos of their spread online.

The effort has drawn interest from as far away as Israel, Poland, Britain and Australia, Horwitz said. “Given that so many young adults are concentrated in a choice few cities, and those folks might want to have meaningful Seder experiences with their 'urban families' before going home, it seemed a perfect parallel to capitalize on an already existing millennial trend. … We’re hoping these people will also have the ability to bring these new customs to their family and infuse new meaningful content in their gatherings.”

Family and fun informed another Passover-related event last weekend at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield Township.

Kids were invited to a “Matzah Factory,” making the flatbread symbolizing ancient Jews’ hasty escape from Egypt, said Shoshana Fain, community outreach coordinator with JFamily, a department at the center involved in the event.

Jade Carlin, 2, of Birmingham uses a roller with spikes to put holes in the matzah dough so that it does not rise while being baked at Matzah Factory Extravaganza at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield on April 14.  The event featured activities designed to help youngsters explore the themes of the Passover holiday.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, some synagogues have coordinated kid-friendly gatherings to help connect the holiday's theme.

Passover events aim to captivate the attention of youngsters such as Samantha Foon’s 20-month-old twins, Riley and Easton. The Bloomfield Hills resident has been helping the pair prepare for the holiday through reading up.

Rabbi Shneur Silberberg of Bais Chabad of West Bloomfield teaches children about how matzah is made at the Matzah Factory Extravaganza at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.

“My kids love to shout, 'Let my people go!

 when they see Moses with the Pharaoh in our Passover books,” she said. 

A holiday centerpiece, of course, is hosting a Seder at home with relatives. “This year, my grandparents will enjoy the company of six great grandchildren, which makes for a really special gathering,” Foon said. “Since we have so many children (attending), I plan to incorporate fun things to keep their attention during the Seder. I found Passover place mats that the kids can color on that I'm really excited about.”

Members of Miller’s synagogue plan a family Seder on Saturday that is slated to include material from HIAS, a nonprofit that works to assist refugees.

Miller notes the group was cited in online remarks attributed to the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last fall. The link — one group working to seek freedom for others amid rising extremism — illustrates the challenges modern Jews face, Miller said. 

“I think people feel compared to a year ago, we have moved backwards in feeling free and liberated,” he said. “Passover is an opportunity for a lot of Jews to have serious conversations about what it means to embrace freedom as a society and what it is we need to make sure we aren’t moving backwards.”