Using a seder to celebrate a state
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Using a seder to celebrate a state

Elaine Kahn and Lois Goldrich

Ken Ovitz has written a different kind of haggadah — not because it approaches the Passover story from a new perspective or on behalf of a particular constituency, but because it has nothing to do with Passover at all.

Ovitz’s "Israel Seder Haggadah" celebrates the State of Israel, "using wine to mark different periods of Jewish history … and various foods to symbolize different aspects of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel," he said in an interview.

A psychotherapist and clinical social worker, Ovitz is also a chef. He graduated from culinary school in ‘003 and, not surprisingly, says he saw "food as a vehicle to teach people about Israel and, even more so, the Jewish historical connection to Israel."

He deliberately called his book "The Israel Seder Haggadah" so that it could be used any time of the year, not just on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel independence day, which begins the night of May ‘. Ovitz led one of his seders for a group of ‘5 1’-year-olds at Temple Emanu-El in Closter on Feb. 15 and will be leading a seder at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, for adults and children, on Thursday, May 4.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut "hasn’t been given the kavod that I think it should have been given," says the author. Nevertheless, "to limit [the Israel seder] to Yom Ha’Atzmaut is just not fair."

Although the Israel haggadah was not written solely or even primarily for use by Jewish educators, "I wanted to leave this open as a book that can be used by Jewish educators throughout the year," he adds. That is precisely what has happened since the book came out a year ago. According to Ovitz, some teachers use parts of it in different parts of the curriculum; others use it whole at one particular time.

The haggadah’s author notes that while the book is often used with children, it was not written specifically for young people. In fact, he thinks people under the age of 1′ are too young for it — in large part because it contains so much historical material. The book’s appendix includes a wide range of optional activities to foster children’s participation.

Ovitz says he was "kind of prompted" to write the book by the second intifada in ‘000 "and the American Jewish response to it." A former Bergen County resident who lives in Edison, he was "shocked to see there was such a small Jewish response" and realized that American Jews have "not nearly enough knowledge of what’s going on in Israel."

While some people have questioned whether it’s too soon after the birth of the State of Israel to develop such a seder and whether, since there are already Pesach seders, we really need more, Ovitz tells them that seders are excellent teaching vehicles and are in fact, gaining in popularity. As an example, he cites the revival of the Tu B’Shevat seder.

"I find it more than coincidental that people have brought back [that] seder," he says. "The idea of using the seder is the most powerful learning experience that people can use." You can’t be at a seder and not learn something, given that participants are "learning while they’re eating, learning while they’re singing, learning while discussing."

Ovitz has produced two versions of the Israel seder: one with "traditional" liturgy and one with "progressive" liturgy. He says he consulted with rabbis across denominations for help deciding how to do this.

Essentially, the traditional version includes both Hebrew and English and speaks of Israel as given by God. The progressive book uses no Hebrew, in order, he says to make it easier to be gender-neutral. It also includes some less theocentric explanantions for the existence of the state.

According to the author, while this represents the "best compromise," it’s still "an ongoing issue" and he welcomes feedback.

Ovitz said that at some point, he hopes to publish a cookbook for the seder. When he was finishing up his chef’s training, he created a menu for a Tu B’Shevat seder, in which each dish "mirrored a different kabbalistic sfira" and the meal as a whole was about growth and friendship.

Ovitz estimates that, reading at a relaxed rate, a group of 10 people will finish the seder in an hour and 15 minutes. If groups incorporate optional readings and activities from the appendix, the seder can extend beyond an hour and a half.

Both versions of "The Israel Seder Haggadah" are available from Daybreaks Gourmet, P.O. Box 1641, Fort Lee, NJ 070’4.

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