Author: Schwartzman, Bryan
Date published: March 25, 2010
After prepping for Passover by preparing matzah-ball soup, kugel and everything in between, Shelley Chamberlain of Cheltenham is more than happy to sit back for a catered second seder at her synagogue.
Growing up in a Reform home in Pittsburgh, the now 52-year-old said that her family almost never took part in two seders: One was considered enough. After all, the thinking went, what's the sense in doing the exact same thing twice?
But now, there's no question that when the second night rolls around, Chamberlain, along with her husband, will delve into the Haggadah with some 100 others at Congregation KoI Ami, a Reform congregation in Elkins Park.
"It is very simple; you want to be with your community," said Chamberlain, who works as assistant director for dining services at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. She relayed that the experience is a bit different on the second night, as KoI Ami's communal seder is centered around social justice.
The Passover meal is the most observed ritual on the Jewish calendar. According to the 2009 "Jewish Population Survey 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, and more than 20 points higher than fasting on Yom Kippur.
But what about the second seder, known as Yom ??? Sheni Shel Galiuot, which roughly translates to the second day of the holiday, celebrated only in the Diaspora? Has participation in the second night increased over time? And has its place in American Jewish life taken on new meaning?
Or has it fallen prey to the increased secularization of American society? Has the ritual been squeezed out by the pressures of contemporary life - the enormous time, effort and cost it takes to host a seder?
The survey doesn't address these issues, and several academics who focus on American Jewry note that there's virtually no data surrounding who does what at the second seder. Still, theories and anecdotal evidence suggest that the practice of holding one has enormous staying power, even if the setting and the way it's conducted may have changed.
According to Jewish tradition, communities in the Diaspora must add an extra day to the festivals of Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot and Shemini Atzaret. This practice extends back to ancient times, when the exact dates of Jewish holidays were set by the Sanhédrin in Jerusalem, and communication with far-flung communities was slow and difficult, according to Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein of the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties, a Chabad Lubavitch congregation.
While the logistical need for this practice has ended, it's still upheld as a matter of custom.
While the first seder has traditionally been a home-based affair, second seders have often become large, communal events.
Before World War II - when most Jews still lived in concentrated Jewish neighborhoods - organizations like Hadassah and the Histadrut had such gatherings that also served as fundraisers, according to Rabbi Fred Kazan, currently of Kesher Israel in Center City. But those, he said, were mostly held during the festival's intervening days since most families had gatherings in the home on the first two nights.
"Because of the two-day yontif, first night was mother's family, second would be father's family, and the third would be the various charitable organizations," said Kazan.
According to ReIa Mintz Geffen, a sociologist and former president of Baltimore Hebrew University, the Conservative movement largely spearheaded the use of synagogue seders in the years after World War II as a means of strengthening community as Jews left concentrated urban neighborhoods for more geographically diffuse suburbs.
"It served a lot of functions - for people who had no place to go, for women who were too exhausted" to prepare another meal, she said.
But the movement that pioneered communal seders has, in recent years, been moving away from them in favor of returning the ritual to the home.
A number of local Conservative synagogues, such as Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley and Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, have discontinued their second seders within the past five years.
Harvey Friedrich, executive director of Beth Sholom, said that the congregation had gone from having 200 people at its second seder to holding a combined one with Adath Jeshurun. Two years ago, they decided not to have one at all.
Friedrich said that families are still doing second seders, but they prefer to "celebrate it with 15 people they care about."
In addition to declining interest, BZBI stopped its communal seder four years ago because of the rising cost of kosher catering, said Rabbi Ira F. Stone. It was getting increasingly difficult to charge less than $60 a person, which for families could represent a real hardship.
Cost aside, the practice seems to remain popular with Reform synagogues.
Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood - which for years has held a seder on the second night of the holiday - surmised that, at least in part, the preponderance of second seders is related to the Reform movement's growing embrace of more traditional liturgy and practices.
But Rabbi Craig Axler of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen - which is holding its first communal seder in more than 20 years - noted that the reasons are often more practical.
Young families without parents or in-laws nearby had been clamoring for something in the synagogue, he said.
Rabbi Richard Address, the caring and community specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, said that communal seders have been a part of the Reform landscape since the 1950s.
"It is indicative of the larger issue, which is the need for community and the need for people to be together," he said.
While the Orthodox might be expected to adhere most closely to the tradition of having seders at home, some of their institutions have adopted the communal approach as well.
In addition to Chabad, which is hosting more than 20 seders throughout the area, Rabbi Yonah Gross of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood said that this was the first time in the shul's 50-year history that it was holding a communal seder, in part to reach out to the unaffiliated. For reasons of logistics, however, the shul is holding it on the first night.
The occasion of the second seder has also played a big part in the development of alternative Haggadahs, and has proved a wellspring for numerous family traditions and interpretations of the holiday, according to Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, professor of Religious Studies' at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
Enthusiasm for multiple seders appears to hold sway across the religious spectrum, she said.
For example, David Fryer, a member of the Jewish Children's Folkshul, a secular organization, reported that the first night of Passover is set aside for a large family gathering that features a traditional seder.
But the second night, Fryer and his male partner, Terry Luhin, and their 6-year-old daughter, head to Fryer's parents' house and lead a more intimate seder that highlights a nontheistic approach to Jewish tradition. This includes experimenting with the interpretation of the four sons, inserting, for instance, the feminist child and the Marxist child.
PROGRAMS FOR PROFESSIONALS
Locally, it's also become a tradition for young adults to get together for alternative seders on the second night.
For the past five years now, the Collaborative, which serves young professionals, organizes a restaurant gathering to delve into the Exodus saga and the meaning of freedom by examining, for example, Bob Marley lyrics or showing a scene from the film "The Shawshank Redemption."
And Moishe House in Philadelphia, which runs peer-based programs for Jews in their 20s and 30s, is hosting a second meal, this year focusing on child nutrition.
But if there is a final frontier for the Passover ritual, it may very well lie in the digital world. On Tuesday, March 30, at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Reform Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati is hosting what is believed to be the world's first, fully online seder.
Participants can sign up beforehand to reach a part of the Haggadah; all that's needed is a plug-in microphone or a phone, said Rabbi Laura Baum of OurJewishCommunity.org, a project of the synagogue.
She said that "with so many people unaffiliated, we want to reach people where they are now. There are so many people that don't have a local option, that don't have a seder."
Jewish Exponent Staff