Jewish students will make history at Brandeis this Passover

Passover HaggadahPhoto/Getty Images

A Passover Haggadah

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended just about everything over the last year, including how Brandeis students will celebrate Passover, one of Judaism’s most sacred holidays, in late March. 

Keeping the campus safe during the pandemic has required the university to adapt its academic calendar. This year, all on-campus students are remaining at Brandeis during Passover, traditionally a time for students to spend time with their families at home.

For the first time in university history, students on campus can commemorate the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt together. 

“Brandeis took lemons and made lemonade,” said University Professor Jonathan Sarna, a leading expert on American Jewish history. “The university has never made Passover on campus — doing so properly entails thorough cleaning, different foods, different dishes, and so on. To pull it off is truly historic.”

Rabbi Seth Winberg, the director of Brandeis Hillel and the university’s senior chaplain, is overseeing this year’s Passover events, which include opportunities for students to host their own Seder or celebrate in groups of up to 10 people. More than 400 students have reserved spaces for Seders.

Catering by Andrew, an award-winning kosher dining service, will supply meals to Brandeis students observing Passover from March 27-April 4. Each student will also receive a Haggadah, the book used during the Seder, as a gift from Hillel to remember this special year.

“We hope students are able to find their place in the story of Passover and the story of the Jewish people,” said Winberg. “The Passover story is what creates the Jewish people through two critical lessons: First, when we're in a narrow place, we have to believe in the possibility of a better future. Second, we were oppressed slaves and therefore we have specific duties to alleviate suffering in the world.”

Friendship and Inclusion. New Traditions and Old Traditions 

Seattle native Juliana Sherer ’23, a psychology and Near Eastern and Judaic studies double major, is attending two Seders at Brandeis, one of which she’s hosting.

“This year I’m not with my parents, so I’m excited to bring my family’s traditions to the table with my friends and also start new traditions,” Sherer said. “I was planning my Seder with one of my friends and it shocked me the things she doesn’t do. I think it’s an exciting challenge and opportunity for us to be open to other traditions. Personally, I think it’s really cool.”

Brandeis has designated spaces for students to host Seders in accordance with health and safety guidelines. However, students can also take their meals to go and host private Seders in their residence halls or attend one virtually with friends and family at home.

Elye Rabinovitz ’23, a politics major, plans to attend a Seder with his family in Atlanta on Zoom. He will also host a longer, more traditional Seder with his Brandeis friends.

“Having the ability to choose how you want to make Passover special and your own is important,” Rabinovitz said. “I’ve never had to think about what I was doing, given that I’ve always had Seder with my family, but now that I can choose makes me prioritize differently. I like that I can make this Seder special while also keeping some old traditions going.”

An historic celebration

There have been few times throughout history when communities have had to improvise the way they celebrate Passover. Special circumstances have sporadically required observant Jews to host unconventional Passovers — from the Civil War battlefield to the 1918 great flu epidemic and among immigrant communities at Ellis Island.

With most undergraduates having a chance to host their own Seders for the first time, Sarna expects an event that students will remember fondly and clearly for years to come.

“It will be a new experience that people will not soon forget,” Sarna said. “Having these traditions on our campus — the joys and distinctive practices and customs of Passover — is a good thing.”

Categories: General, Student Life

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