Monday night will be a typical weeknight for Sam Biederman.
After he finishes work as director of communications at the New School in Greenwich Village, he may head to the gym for a workout. Or go out for drinks with friends. Or watch some TV at home.
The one place he won’t be on the first night of Passover is at a seder.
“It’s not a big thing” in his life, he says. Biederman, 30, who is from Chicago and now lives in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, says he went to family seders at his grandparents’ home as a kid. “A very casual sort of event — pretty short.” His family was unaffiliated. Their seders had a secular, political bent. At the end they’d sing the National Anthem and some Yiddish songs.
“The message of the holiday was about freedom and liberty — American values,” Biederman says. But he found the seders uninspiring. He stopped going once he left home to attend college. “It wasn’t an event that spoke strongly enough to me to make it a regular part of my life.”
Biederman isn’t alone. A growing number of American Jews are seder dropouts; others, particularly members of the émigré community, never went in the first place.
According to statistical and anecdotal evidence, attendance at a seder was once a near-mandatory part of Jewish life in this country, even though the seder might be heavy on socializing and light on reading the Haggadah. As late as the 1990s, most surveys indicated that some 90 percent of American Jewry attended a seder.
The numbers have dropped since then. A majority of American Jews still keeps Pesach on its calendar, with seders easily outranking such practices as synagogue attendance or keeping kosher; but it’s a much smaller majority.
According to many national and regional studies of the Jewish community, between 60 and 70 percent of American Jews now go to a seder. The 2013 National Jewish Population Survey: 68 percent. The 2013 Pew Forum report: 70 percent. The 2011 UJA-Federation Jewish Community Study: 69 percent. The Jewish Federation of Atlanta’s 2006 Jewish Community Centennial Study: 62 percent. In California’s East Bay, which has a reputation as a particularly liberal area, a 2011 study found that exactly half of the Jewish community goes to a seder.
All the surveys report varying attendance rates among various sub-groups; the highest, predictably, is among the Orthodox, the lowest among the intermarried and “Jews of no religion.” But the surveys share the conclusion that the seder, which ranks with Chanukah candles and the Yom Kippur fast at the top of Jews’ observance list, has lost its drawing power and its status as a not-to-be-missed event.
The decreased interest in seders parallels a drop in other traditional markers of Jewish involvement, such as synagogue membership, donations to Jewish causes or simply Jewish self-identification. According to the Pew Research Religion and Life Project’s 2013 survey, barely one-fourth of American Jews view religion as playing an important part in their lives.
Many leaders and thinkers in the Jewish community interpret these numbers to mean that many Jews, in a way unimaginable a few decades ago, are losing one of their last ties to the community. Demographers call a drop in seder attendance a lagging indicator — a late-to-be-noticed sign of a growing disinterest in Jewish life.
The loss “is extraordinarily important,” says Ron Wolfson, author of “The Passover Seder: The Art of Living Jewish” (Jewish Lights, 1996). “The seder is the linchpin of Jewish engagement. It’s the Jewish family reunion.
“My sense is that those who embrace the opportunity to turn the seder into something ‘beyond Maxwell House’ find that their family and guests love the evening,” Wolfson says. “It’s a challenge to the Jewish community.”
David Arnow, author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders” (Jewish Lights, 2011), questioned the recent surveys’ findings — he doubts that the drop in seder attendance is as dramatic as indicated — but says “all of our [Jewish] institutions have to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do better?’”
In response, institutions like the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the Manhattan-based Ohel Ayalah offer free communal seders, the National Jewish Outreach offers subsidies for its Passover Across America initiative, Jewish organizations distribute materials for “creative seders” on contemporary themes, and a growing number of websites offer advice on making one’s own, individualistic Haggadah or holiday celebration: jewishholidaysinabox.com, diptwice.com, haggadot.com and madeitmyselfbooks.com/about/about-my-haggadah.
For many young Jews who feel little connection to “the traditional experience” of a seder, it is “even more important to create new … do-it-yourself … entry points,” says Amelia Klein, assistant director of Reboot, a Jewish cultural organization whose goal is “to reinvent Jewish traditions and rituals.”
Who’s not going to seders? The list, say experts interviewed by The Jewish Week, includes people who find the seder boring, its readings and rituals without meaning; those who consider the holiday’s theme excessively chauvinistic or paternalistic; émigrés from the former Soviet Union and other once-communist countries who grew up without freedom of religion and never had the chance to attend a seder; people who simply can’t afford to make their own or attend one hosted by a synagogue or another Jewish organization; the isolated elderly who don’t live near anyone who makes a seder; young people who are out-of-town over yom tov and have not received an invitation; singles who feel out of place in a seder’s intensely child-centered atmosphere; and people who say they are too secular or disinterested or burned out to care.
“A lot of [young] people have problems identifying with religion,” says 22-year-old Sophie Kaufman, a student at the New School. She says she and her boyfriend, who comes from a Modern Orthodox background, will not go to a seder next week. She went as a kid, in Los Angeles; “it became repetitive.”
“When I was a kid my family forced me to sit through Passover seders in addition to keeping kosher for all eight days,” Shane Fischer, an attorney in Winter Park, Fla., tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail. “In other words, instead of encouraging me to learn more about my faith while appreciating my cultural history, I resented being told what I could and could not eat. … I refuse to voluntarily participate in a holiday I have such poor memories of growing up.”
“When we were younger, and my grandparents were alive, we’d do seders. But as we got older, and that generation left us, things changed,” says Aly Walansky, who is single and in her 30s and lives in Brooklyn. “Now, I do have dinner with my parents the first and second nights of Passover, but our dinner looks very much like a Thanksgiving dinner — turkey, matzah ball soup, etc. But no siddurs, no Four Questions, no hiding of the matzah.”
Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who heads programming for the Moving Traditions educational organization, says some of the guests at his seders “felt they had experienced one [seder] already and didn’t really feel the need to participate in one each year.”
Asked if creative approaches to the seder can bring more people to the seder table, Rabbi Brenner says, “I think they can. The more people that have positive associations with the themes of the festival this year will seek out a table next year. Or better yet, they will make their own seder.”
The seder has a poor reputation in some circles, Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote in a 2008 essay, “The Passover Test,” on slate.com. He told the story of a “professional-looking woman in her 30s,” married to a Catholic man, who wanted to introduce the couple’s children to Jewish life by bringing them to a seder. She talked with the executive director of a Maryland synagogue about the congregation’s communal seder.
“The executive director gave her advice she didn’t expect,” Rosner wrote. “If this is your children’s first encounter with Judaism, don’t start by bringing them to a seder,” Rosner quoted the executive director as saying. “It is long, can be boring at times, and requires a lot of reading.”
A 2009 article in The New York Times Magazine about J Street, the self-described “Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel” lobbying organization that is emerging as an alternative to AIPAC, offered this description of J Street’s 30-something staffers in the words of founder Jeremy Ben-Ami: “They’re all intermarried. They’re all doing Buddhist seders.”
“Our challenge today is engaging young people through different platforms,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “We know that some may chose virtual [seder] services, but our responsibility is to strengthen live, personal contact.”
Avital Chizhik, 22, the daughter of Russian immigrants who live in Highland Park, N.J., says members of the émigré community were raised with little explanation of the meaning of Passover’s symbols. “It’s a matter of the rituals not being relevant to them. It’s true of any rituals in general.” The language of the Haggadah is often off-putting, she says. “It’s the language of the Orthodox.”
Chizhik, who is, in fact, Orthodox, says her family hosts a seder for their extended family in Russian, full of explanations. “We try really hard. That requires preparation.”
Philip Mandel, a 60-year-old “recovering engineer” from Great Neck who now works as a health coach in Oregon, says the “full-blown, takes-forever, Orthodox seder” his grandfather led years ago “didn’t mean anything to me.” Now, no seders. His Jewish friends “raise an eyebrow and shake their heads” when they hear about his Passover non-plans.
Sandra Hurtes, a 63-year-old writer/writing coach who lives in Brooklyn, is a bit nostalgic about her childhood seders. “Our seders were all about Food!” she tells The Jewish Week via email. “My parents were Holocaust survivors. My favorite parts of the seder were drinking wine in a glass etched with reindeers, watching Eliyahu’s [Elijah’s] glass lower, singing at the end of dinner with my father,” Hurtes writes. “Ultimately, after my marriage ended in divorce I questioned my beliefs and God. Also, the insular Seder made me sad. The lightness of my childhood wasn’t there; my reindeer glass was gone. I now stay home and pamper myself with a long drawn-out pedicure or other indulgence. It feels good to treat the evening as ordinary but somewhat special.”
And what about Sam Biederman, the New School communications director — will he find himself at a seder next year? Maybe.
Not this year, though.
But he has his own erev Pesach tradition. “This year I’ll call my grandmother,” he says. “Because I know how to be a good boy.”
Correction, June 3, 2015: This story was corrected to say that Avital Chizhik's family lives in Highland Park, N.J., not Brighton Beach, and only has extended family at their seders, not members of the larger Russian community.