How many questions should you ask on Passover?

JSSA Passover Gameboard_Page_1“She died in her sleep,” relayed the voice over the phone.  “After years of suffering… she is at peace, but, now… now I am suffering. Rabbi, can you help me?” I put down the phone and was with the family in under an hour.  That afternoon, I heard fragments of a lifetime of memories…the next morning we returned her body to the earth.

How quickly life can change, and, when it does, JSSA is here to help.  As the Director of JSSA’s Jewish Chaplaincy Services, my team and I work with families facing challenging situations every day.  Some families are able to pay for JSSA’s services and some are not.  Regardless, we are always ready to help.

Two weeks after officiating at the funeral for the family mentioned above, a letter arrived on my desk.  It contained a check for twice the amount of our suggested donation, along with a note that read, “For the next family in need.”  What a mensch!

One ancient sage, Rabbi Tanchum, would purchase double of everything.  When asked why, he explained, “one for me, and one for someone in need.” This kind of generosity is at the foundation of kehillah kedosha, a holy community.  And it is what has kept JSSA’s doors opened for the past 120 years.

This Passover, JSSA is partnering with B’nai B’rith, and other local organizations and synagogues to deliver 500 Kosher for Passover food baskets. For families, individuals with special needs, seniors and Holocaust survivors in need.  As you prepare for your own holiday celebration, consider sponsoring a basket (or more) for $36.  Your generosity will allow a struggling neighbor to celebrate Passover with dignity.

Too often, we hear of clients unable to afford the additional items necessary to observe Passover.  Some even consider buying less in the weeks before in order to afford the more expensive Kosher for Passover items.  Others forgo their medication.  You can help them avoid making these choices by sponsoring a basket or few.  This holiday program relies solely on the contributions from our community.

JOIN US by choosing to sponsor a basket (or few) in honor of your host or guests – send an eCard today,

To extend our thanks to program supporters and to enhance Seder experiences across the metro area, we’re providing some added fun…with Passover BINGO!  This is not just your Bubbie’s BINGO!  With questions like, “Why is sponge cake a popular Passover dessert” and challenges like, “share a modern day exodus story”, JSSA, your local Jewish Social Service Agency, has created a Passover BINGO game for everyone at your Seder.  Together your friends and family will learn more about each other and reflect on story and experiences of Passover.

Hag Sameach (Happy Holiday),

Rabbi James Q. Kahn
Director of JSSA’s Jewish Chaplaincy Services


Marissa Neuman Jachman
JSSA Manager of Annual Giving

Are you a Birthright alumni? Birthright NEXT will help you host a Passover seder!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABirthright NEXT is providing some great resources to help you host your own seder!

Been on a Birthright Israel trip?  Celebrate Passover by hosting a NEXT Passover Seder for your friends.  NEXT will give you everything you need, including delicious recipes, up to $10 per person to help cover the cost of food, and a guide to customizing your own traditions.  Sign up today: Passover Your Way.

Even if you’re not a Birthright alumni, there are still great resources on the NEXT website that you can take advantage of.  Check them out here.

JUFJ’s Labor Seder Focuses on Raising the Minimum Wage

jufjWe are commanded that in every generation, every Jew is obligated to view themselves as though they came out of Egypt.  In most Jewish families, this means dipping parsley in salt water, eating horseradish covered in charoset and singing “Hagadya”.  For me, this has also meant that for the last 5 years, I have attended Jews United for Justice’s annual Labor Seder.  For the past few years, I have a been a part of the seder planning team and this year, I have been co-chairing the planning process.  The Labor Seder is meaningful to me because the value of Tikkun Olam has always been central to my personal Jewish identity, but I have not always known how to integrate my activism with traditional Judaism.  My involvement in the Labor Seder has allowed me to connect my favorite Jewish festival, Passover, with my desire to see a more just world.

The haggadah states – “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – now we are free.”  But many in our society are not free and experience oppression and hardship every day.  Every year, the Labor Seder brings a social justice issue of local and national importance together with the traditional themes of the Seder, connecting our history and values as Jews with the struggles of working people.  This year, as DC, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County have already taken action to raise the minimum wage and JUFJ is part of an active campaign to raise the wage in all of Maryland, the theme of the Seder is the need to raise the minimum wage.  The 300+ person event features singing, speakers, group discussion, taking action, and of course, some light noshing.

The Seder will be at 5:30 pm on Sunday, March 23rd at Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park, DC.  You can find more information and buy tickets here.

Finding Hope in Hate

bananasAny opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not represent the opinions of Gather the Jews.

The signs the protestors held outside our synagogue on the eve of the second Pesach seder read “GOD HATES JEWS,” “JEWS KILLED JESUS (.com)” and “GOD HATES (their terrible word for homosexual people).”  My entire life, I have been a member of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC and it has become a family tradition to celebrate the seder with our community members on the second night of Passover.  But this year, the Westboro Baptist Church has also decided to make their presence known on this symbolic evening by attempting to sabotage our festive gathering.

That same day, the Westboro members demonstrated their vehement bigotry outside of the Supreme Court, where the justices are questioning the constitutionality of the “Defense of Marriage Act.”  There they picketed with “SAME SEX MARRIAGE DOOMS OUR NATION,” “GAY RIGHTS: AIDS HELL,” and their favorite fallback “GOD HATES (again, derogatory slur for homosexuals).”  They told reporters that “every leader at every level of this nation has some powerful f** influence right outside their door.”  They spent the day spewing hatred and intolerance on the subject of gay marriage (also towards “BLOODY OBAMA” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS”) and then traveled all the way across town to spend the twilight hours disseminating their terrible messages outside our shul.

By this point, the Westboro Baptist Church is internationally known as a group of hate-mongers who have almost no credibility whatsoever (and yet, they did win their Supreme Court appeal over funeral protests).  But, even so, it is frustrating and disheartening to be reminded that people with such prejudice, who continually go out of their way to discriminate and promote their narrow-mindedness, exist and propagate and have a voice that is seen and heard.

There is a popular joke that every Jewish holiday can be summed up in three phrases: They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.  Before the seder began, the reaction to these crusaders of hate ranged from sarcastic indifference (“People hate Jews?  Quelle surprise!”) to bewilderment (“God hates Jews?”) to outrage (“I can barely stomach this gefilte fish I’m so angry!”)  But once we commenced our journey into reliving the story of the Exodus, once we were provoked into insightful discussion by thoughtfully prepared questions such as “Has any bitter experience in your own life been the springboard for something sweet?” and once we began to celebrate our surviving and thriving as a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, a people, the instigators of intolerance faded from our lives.  We focused on the hope that Passover inspires, the freedom that we rejoice in, and the sense of community that we cherish.

Our Rabbi, the brilliant Gil Steinlauf, did take a moment to recognize the impact and significance that the picketing represented.  “Our Haggadah tells us that in every generation there are those who seek to destroy us. We have a literal reminder of that reality outside, as members of the Westboro Baptist Church seek to spew hatred upon us and our LGBT brothers and sisters.  Their presence is a reminder to us all that our celebration of freedom brings with it responsibilities.  Even in our day, there are those who are not free from the oppression of those who hate.  Tonight is a literal reminder that our work for justice in this world is not yet done. May we draw inspiration from our story tonight in our work that lays ahead for us in liberating all the oppressed peoples of the world.”

The gay rights movement was a constant subject matter throughout our seder discussion.  Freedom, equality, and struggle are all themes that are intrinsic to Passover and are dealt with and explored during the seders.  And the symbolism of the maror, the bitterness, mixed with the charoset, the mortar that keeps everything together, seemed particularly pertinent given the current battle for human rights.  The success of nine states (and D.C.! Can’t forget us here) legalizing same-sex marriage mixed with the DOMA requiring inter-state marriage recognition only to opposite-sex marriage is inherently bittersweet.

But the Passover holiday reminds us of many lessons.  Through the darkest times comes light.  Through despair comes hope.  Through struggle comes triumph.  Through hate comes love.  And for all our LGBT brothers and sisters fighting for their right to equality in love, I eagerly await the day where we can celebrate together at your weddings and lift my glass to you to say “L’chaim.”

Passover Events!

Looking for a seder? Something to do during the eight days without chometz? We’ve got you covered. If we left anything off, please email Rachel at

Tuesday, March 12th:

Sunday, March 17th:

Monday, March 18th:

Wednesday, March 20th:

Thursday, March 21st:

Saturday, March 23rd:

Monday, March 25th:

Tuesday, March 26th:

Friday, March 29th:

Sunday, March 31st:

Passover and the True Meaning of Freedom

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.


Pesach (Passover) is here once again and being that Pesach is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays among American Jewry today, it’s safe to say that most of us will do all or at least one of the following: attend a Seder, rid the house of chametz (leavened products and other things forbidden for consumption during Passover), retell the story of the Jews leaving Egypt, or spend time with family. During the Seder it is traditional to read the Haggadah. The Haggadah tells us that we must not think of the Passover story as a thing of the past. Rather, each of us must envision that we ourselves are slaves leaving Egypt and embarking on a life of freedom. But what is freedom? Sounds like an easy question. After all freedom means doing whatever you want, right? Actually Judaism has a slightly different interpretation of what it means to be free.

Many have heard that G-d commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh and say “Let my people go,” but the last part of the sentence is often forgotten. It reads as follows “Send out my people so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” So that they may serve Me should remind us that G-d redeemed the Jewish people from bondage in order to enable them to serve Him. Indeed the whole purpose of life is to recognize and come closer to G-d. This is achieved through studying the Torah – G-d’s blueprint for living – and performing the mitzvot. Each mitzvah is a connection to the Creator and Sustainer of all life.

So how is this freedom? It seems as if the Jewish people traded in one type of slavery in for another! The truth is that serving G-d is actually the only kind of freedom that exists. A person who is ruled by their impulses is not free. Often what we think is right or good for us does not lead to good results. The Torah is a manifestation of G-d’s will and intellect in this world. It provides us with objective advice divorced from our own limited, fallible understanding of what is right and wrong, beneficial and harmful, wise and foolish. Yes, everyone makes mistakes in life, but the Torah enables us to transcend ourselves and connect with something higher. When we free ourselves from the chains binding us into our own little worlds of me – a recipe for misery – and connect with our Source we become free to actualize our potential as human beings.

Mitzrayim (Egypt) is related to the word, Meitzar, which denotes limitation. The Jews leaving Egypt was not just a story that happened once long ago. We are confronted with the challenge of freeing ourselves from our own limitations on a daily basis. We all have our own personal Egypt holding us back from experiencing freedom. For some, Egypt may mean an inability to control emotions like anger, selfishness, or excessive pessimism. For others it is never ‘finding the time’ to discover more about their Judaism. Still others can’t turn off their cell phones for a few hours or decrease their time chasing money or recognition. Whatever our struggle may be, this Pesach we should reflect on the meaning of freedom – in the Jewish sense of the word – and resolve to take at least one step toward being free people.

During Pesach we eat matzah, the bread of affliction and we avoid all leavened products. Chassidus teaches that all of our negative character traits stem from ego – our conception that we the individual are the center of it all. Yeast symbolizes the ego. Matzah, which is devoid of yeast, is flat and easily broken. Chassidus explains that the first step toward personal growth and self-improvement is humility and self-nullification. With a contrite and ‘broken’ heart we can engage in honest introspection and connect with a higher reality. May we all emerge from the bondage of Egypt and taste freedom now!



Liberation from Hate

Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld

Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld

Noa Levanon is a GTJ staff member.

During Passover, a popular theoretical exercise aims to examine the way the concept of liberation applies to the world today.  As I attempted to modernize this concept vis-à-vis the Jewish people, I considered a form of oppression that is, unfortunately, all too topical for Jews today.  It is an experience from which the Jewish people, after emerging brutalized from the Holocaust over 60 years ago, had hoped finally to be liberated – they had hoped that, in the dawn of international awakening about the dangers of rampant racism that followed the genocide against their people, they would finally be able to shake off the fetters of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism remains pervasive today.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of witnessing an endeavor to combat the oppressive weight of this ongoing prejudice.  From April 2 to 5, I attended the inaugural conference of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, at Indiana University.  Here, scholars from across the United States, Europe, and Israel gathered to discuss and analyze incidents and patterns of modern (post-Holocaust) anti-Semitism.  Both the conference and the institute itself were conceived by Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a renowned Holocaust scholar and former head of IU’s Borns Jewish Studies Department.  He discovered that, although the Holocaust itself and pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism had been widely studied, there was no systematic or academic analysis of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in recent decades.  The formation of the institute was his answer to this academic gap.

The inaugural event, held at Indiana University, was kicked off with a DC twist: Hannah Rosenthal, the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, gave a keynote address.  In it, she talked about her various activities to prevent anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior by increasing awareness of its presence and potential danger.  In this capacity, she described one of her chief projects to date:  a trip of several imams, some of them previously Holocaust deniers, to visit Auschwitz in August, 2010.

The lecture sequence of the conference was launched the next morning.  Dr. Rosenfeld, in his opening remarks, cited a message from Judea Pearl, whose journalist son, Daniel, was forced to confess to being a Jew before being beheaded, argued that the murder “has come to symbolize the horrors and inescapable reality of resurgent Anti-Semitism.”  He urged conference participants to channel their expertise and passion to try and “[roll] back the hatred that took [his son’s] life and the tsunami of dehumanization currently sweeping our planet.”  His call to “map its undercurrents, analyze its anatomy, and understand its circuitry in scientific details” evokes the institute’s academic approach.

Pearl’s exhortation was complimented with a wide range of presentations, studying trends in various regions and among different ideological groups.  Scholars discussed topics from government-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the Arab world to growing anti-Jewish rhetoric in Europe, among international and non-governmental organizations, and even on American campuses (for a full conference program, click here).  One ubiquitous discussion was the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Scholars were quick to note that criticism of Israel did not necessarily connote anti-Semitism, but also noted that anti-Zionism frequently served as a mask for more insidious prejudice.  As such, they sought to highlight specific and unfair double standards against Jews and Israel, and define the conditions under which such criticism crossed the line into anti-Semitism.  Frequently, scholars found that modern anti-Semitism manifested itself in the creation of jarring political coalitions between progressive and fundamentalist groups whose only ideological connection appeared to be the desire for a one-sided focus on Jewish groups or the Jewish State.  More disturbingly, scholars found that such coalitions, by appropriating the language of human rights and liberal democracy, lent the imprimatur of legitimacy and righteousness to biased campaigns that focused – often without substantiation – only on Israel while ignoring or even enabling egregious abuses around the globe.

Hoping to build off of the momentum from the conference, Dr. Rosenfeld intends to publish a collection of essays based on the conference presentations in an edited volume.

As we eat the ‘bread of affliction’ this week, let us remember that oppression and brutalization of Jews – whether through openly and tacitly sanctioned violence or whether through pernicious and discriminatory political rhetoric – unfortunately continues.  May a heightened awareness of the increasing Jewish challenges in the post-Holocaust era lead us to confront the troubling trends with courage and wit, and perhaps, finally, succeed in liberating ourselves from anti-Semitism.

For general information about the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, click here.

And the winner of the 3rd annual Afikomen Scavenger Hunt is…

Is…  the matter of some controversy.

On Sunday, April 10, approximately 120 young professionals joined together at Sixth & I to compete in the Third Annual Afikomen Scavenger Hunt.   The contest sent the teams to 10 different locations throughout Chinatown. Each stop required the team to perform a task or answer a riddle that related to one of the ten plagues.  After accomplishing the task or answering the riddle, teams received a clue that led to the next location.

Examples:  At the “frog plague station,” teams had to leap frog over the other members of the team.  At the “lice station,” teams had to ask a random passer by to pour a cup of water on the head of one of their team members.  At the “gnats/flies station” teams had to volley a shuttlecock back-and-forth 20 times.

The final clue led the teams to Rocket Bar where the winning piece of matzah was to be hastily devoured by the first there.

Three teams arrived within a matter of seconds.   Each team made its case for eternal glory…  The ruling went to The Thundering Yogatos (pictured below), but we might yield the GTJ forum to a few different members of the different teams to make their cases (in a thoroughly non-serious way) later today or this week.

Who knows?  If the arguments are convincing enough, it might lead to the awarding of a second gold medal (2002 SLC Winter Games.  I was at this second medal awarding!  Utah w00t!)

Because nobody wants the bronze medal…  Just ask NBA superstar Carmello Anthony how he feels about bronze medals...  (go to second 50 of this YouTube clip.  Warning.  Offensive language).

Thanks to all the groups who sponsored this event (Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Birthright Israel NEXT, Sixth & I, DC JCC).  One of the best events of the year.

Full disclosure:  I was on The Thundering Yogatos.  🙂