Alice Doirer tasted the horseradish and made a face. Her neighbor, Alex Cruz, said, “It almost blew my eyes out it was so spicy.” But Doirer tasted the charoset and exclaimed, “It tastes like apple pie.”
Doirer and Cruz, both students at the Robert Treat Academy in Newark, were among about 100 Jewish and non-Jewish sixth and seventh graders from four different schools who gathered on April 5 at Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark for what was dubbed the “Newark Jewish Heritage Passover Model Seder.” The Robert Treat students sat at long tables full of seder plates and Kiddush cups, matzah and plague masks, with peers from The RTW Gottesman Academy in Randolph, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the Sussex Avenue School in Newark.
The event was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and created by Ilyse Shainbrown, the federation’s Gottesman Fellow for Jewish Culture and Education in Newark, with the idea of bringing together the Newark community and the Greater MetroWest community. “There is Jewish life in Newark,” she said. “We want to get together and be aware of that. What better way to do that than over a Pesach seder, eating together, talking together.”
For the Newark students, the event was an extension of their curriculum which includes world religions. “We don’t have a big Jewish population in our school, said Erin Sloan, a teacher from Robert Treat. “This is a great way of exploring a religion the students are not so familiar with.”
While both Gottesman and Golda Och offered to host the seder, Shainbrown felt it made more sense to allow the synagogue, the only one still operational in Newark, to host it. She hopes the students will forge connections and “realize they have more commonalities than differences.” She planned the event to facilitate it, from the Haggadah she developed — divided into parts assigned to pairs of students from different schools and sent in advance so students could prepare — to the questions she posed during the seder — designed to get the students talking to each other; from sharing a favorite hobby that freedom enables us to enjoy, to deciding what superpower the kids would have if they could choose.
As they sat down, some of the kids, like Isaiah Jackson, noticed the architecture. “The building is big and looks really well constructed,” he said, adding, “I’m looking forward to seeing what they actually do on Passover.”
His friend Darrell Morton was interested in “the stories” that would be told during the event.
Moises Castillo was “excited about having a new experience,” but he acknowledged, “I’m nervous about meeting new people and doing something I’ve never done before.”
And Doirer, seated next to Alec Stein, a student from Golda Och, took advantage of the opportunity to ask some informal questions. “Why do you go to church on Saturday?”
The seder began with students from Sussex Avenue School and the Gottesman Academy reading together, “Imagine a world without freedom,” from their custom-made Haggadahs. Bit by bit, the students stood up, in pairs and triplets from the different schools, reading their parts, learning about the items on the seder plates in front of them, dipping, and tasting everything.
When he took a piece of matzah to try, Moises said, not incorrectly, “It’s like a giant cracker.”
The day-school students led the singing of the Four Questions, and a few other traditional Passover songs, and the other students joined in as best they could, with the aid of provided transliterations.
They donned masks with names and images depicting each plague, and everyone dipped a finger to remove ten drops of grape juice from the cup, representing one drop of blood for each plague and the deaths they caused.
Gottesman’s head of school, Moshe Vaknin, guitar in hand, taught everyone the chorus of Dayenu, insisting, “It has nothing to do with dying.”
To mark the end of the seder, the group of students arose and said, “May there be freedom and peace for us. For everyone.” Shainbrown encouraged the students to share with each other their own traditions. As middle schoolers talked about Christmas and Easter delicacies their grandmothers prepare every year, the teachers helped serve a festive meal of matzah lasagna, salad, and brownies.
KhalMarri Goodwin of Robert Treat Academy called the day “a good experience, trying different foods and singing songs.” Her friend, Aaliyah Isahawk, said it was “fun to learn stuff about how different cultures eat and celebrate.”
Jackson said he enjoyed the singing, but what he really liked was “the part about the spirit”; that is, the angel of death killing the first-born Egyptians. For some kids, it’s all about the drama.
Sheila Bonder a teacher from the Sussex Avenue School, said it was great for kids to see that “although we’re different, we’re really very similar.”