Rabbi Paul Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Calif., and his wife, Michelle November, a high school admissions officer and former national college director of the Union for Reform Judaism, are authors of a new book, “Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness” (Jewish Lights).
Their book, based on the couple’s experience raising three children, offers their insights into “mak[ing] sure that your children stay connected to what really matters in life,” and includes their advice on leading a Passover seder that captures children’s interest.
The Jewish Week spoke recently with Rabbi Kipnes and Michelle November. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q.:Jews have been making seders for 2,000 years. Why do we need more advice on how to do it?
A.: (PK): Because people change, kids are different, families are different. Because the seder was intended to be a multi-sensory, learning and eating experience. The way people connect with their senses has changed, multimedia has grown; and just as the ancient rabbis transformed a Roman salon into the seder, we need to transform the seder into a modern learning experience.
Your emphasis is on the “spiritual” side of raising children. How do you make an effective, spiritual seder for people who don’t consider themselves particularly “religious”? Is it tougher to get the kids involved?
Kids can’t sit still for an hour or two at the table.
The seder is about retelling and re-enacting a central value proposition: that we were once oppressed and now we are free, that we were in pain and we’ve moved beyond the pin.
What are your criteria for a good seder?
MN: We want everybody of all ages to feel connected. We want everybody at the seder to feel they are an active participant. We send an email to everybody in advance asking them to come prepared with a specific story or visual presentation related to freedom.
We reported last year that the percentage of Jews attending a seder is on the decline. Why do you think that is happening?
PK: We have gotten lost in the ritualism of the ritual, and have lost the energy and excitement that was intended in the seder. We’ve allowed our seders to become formal and boring.
What is your first advice for people who want to make a more engaging seder?
MN: We hold the service in a different area of the house from where we hold the seder meal. It keeps young people more engaged through the evening. We may hold the service in the backyard.
PK: Let people relax at couches. Create games or activities that reinforce the [seder] message. People today don’t sit at their table for an hour or two.
What is the most common mistake that seder leaders make?
They read their way through the book and do little else.
What’s the worst mistake you have made at a seder you led?
MN: We used to wait until each symbol was acknowledged and eaten before we went on to the next, and we had a lot of cranky, hungry guests. We evolved into letting the kids have freedom of dipping [foods throughout the early part of the seder]. Once we allowed people to dip to their delight, the seder became more meaningful, because their bellies weren’t grumbling.
You’ve had a seder where out-of-town people were Skyped in. How did that work, and how did that work out?
PK: We Skyped in the folks from the East Coast, and they were prepared to answer certain questions about out how Jewish holidays were observed when they were kids. They were able to share and pass on values to their grandkids. We also have Skyped our kids when they were not able to get home from college. They sang with us.