Every year when my family gets to the part of the Passover seder describing The Four Sons, we discuss the righteous child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child that doesn’t even know enough to ask. Every year my father shares the same sentiment: “Who is missing?” As if on cue, he then answers his own question, and says, “The fifth son is missing; he is the one that doesn’t even come to the table.”
The lesson of the fifth son has meant different things at different times of my life. As I prepare for Passover this year, the missing sons of my father’s question echoes. Who are they, where are they and why aren’t they attending a Passover seder.
People participate in Jewish life differently, yet somehow the Passover seder always stands out. The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York, measured Jewish engagement with 24 different metrics, including participating in the seder, lighting Shabbat candles, going to Jewish museums, giving charity to Jewish organizations, and feelings of connection to Israel. Attending a Passover seder is listed, as it has been before, as one of the top ways that people engage and connect to the Jewish community.
The study nevertheless reports a downward trend in seder participation. In 2002, 77 percent of participants reported attending a seder; in 2011 this decreased to 69 percent. The study shows overall that there is a growing number of Jews who are less engaged in Jewish life, and that declining seder attendance is part of an overall trend. Other research demonstrates the same trend — the 2012 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews reported that 70 percent of Jews said that they participated in a seder last year.
We need to think about what is contributing to this downward trend and what can we do to respond to it. There is considerable discussion regarding this survey, and in particular the rising numbers of individuals who are not actively engaged in Jewish life and community. Also let us not forget the value of dedicating our time and energy to ensuring that those who are engaged will continue to choose to do so. If we take for granted that people will continue to celebrate Passover, the downward trend will continue to grow.
Passover is a central story that shaped how we became a people, nation and family. If an individual feels estranged from this communal “family of origin,” then why would he or she attend a seder? We need to do more — through outreach, education and programming of all sorts — to create communities of inclusion all year so that people will feel motivated to participate in a seder, feel included in our community’s narrative, and experience it as meaningful.
A key goal of UJA-Federation is to build meaningful community. J-1-1, UJA-Federation’s Information and Referral Center, compiles a list of communal seders. We post it on the UJA website, ujafedny.org/find-a-seder. Other organizations also do similar outreach, such as Grapevine, a program of The Council of Young Jewish Presidents, and we should keep looking for more ways to include more people.
The Haggadah represents all “the sons” during the time of Passover, to show how integral everyone is to making our community whole. No matter what people’s knowledge and level of formal engagement, they are still an important part of our family and we want them involved. It should be a communal goal to get all “fifth sons” and daughters back at the table. It shouldn’t matter how you observe, where you are on the spectrum of connection, how learned, or if you are new to Judaism. We are all one people and we should create a community in which everyone feels comfortable and invited.
Part of the Passover tradition is to encourage questions. So in that spirit, I do not present you with all the answers and just might have brought up more questions. But there is learning and growth in starting to ask. My hope is that this year more people will ask my father’s question at their seder and discuss steps that they can personally take to strengthen the Jewish community so soon we won’t have to seek the fifth son.
Tamar Frydman is manager of J-1-1, UJA-Federation of New York’s Information & Referral Center in the Jewish Communal Network Commission.