A Recipe for Preparing a Congregational Seder

by Cantor Alane Katzew

A congregational seder is a wonderful way for a small congregation to build community while sharing the experience of the Exodus. While it can be daunting for one person, when the work is shared and delegated among many according to their interests and abilities, the results can be awesome, educational and fun.

We developed this easy to use guide specifically to provide small congregations with the basics. Of course, contact us if you’d like to discuss in more detail, and discuss below what ingredients you would add to this recipe for your community.

Ingredients of the Seder:

  1. Pre-planning and Organizing
  2. Choosing your Haggadah
  3. Food Preparation (Cookbooks)
  4. Music (CDs and Music Books, Parody Lyrics)
  5. Choosing a Master of Ceremonies
  6. Assigning the parts in advance

1) Preplanning and organizing

Who’s running the show?
Appoint a congregant as Project Manager to keep track of who is coming, what foods they are bringing with them and what their responsibilities will be during the actual seder. (Don’t forget to ask about special needs such as food allergies.) Your Project Manager is pivotal to the success of the seder. The Project Manager should either act as registrar or work with the registrar for an accurate headcount – it is essential to have enough food!

You can’t have a seder without food!
You’ll want to determine what to charge for the seder per adult and child, and also who is making the food. Pot luck is nice and has a communal feel, though some may feel it’s a burden. Catering relieves the burden but can be costly. Think about your congregational community and choose which option (or maybe a combination) fits best.

If the meal is pot luck, you’ll need to develop a menu and make sure everything needed is covered by someone. There will still be certain required items, such as Haggadah copies, wine, grape juice, seder plate requisites, etc., for which you’ll still be responsible. Figure out the items you’ll need to purchase, and include the costs of kitchen/custodial help to determine what to charge.

Provide resources to participants as they undertake their role. For example, determine a “policy” for what can and cannot be used in cooking kosher for Passover foods. (We recommend that the policy reflect the needs of your most observant congregants.) For instance, Ashkenazic Jews are prohibited from eating kitniyot (legumes) on Passover. However, Sephardic practice allows kitniyot. By defining the category of kitniyot and then asking those who are involved in food preparation to bring a card listing all of ingredients for what they have prepared (to be placed in front of the dish on the buffet table), one who is Ashkenazic and does not eat kitniyot can be alerted appropriately about what s/he may eat – without embarrassment. Remember to include vegetarians in the planning mix, as well as those who may have allergies to milk products, nuts and the like.

For Passover recipes from Tina Wasserman, visit the URJ’s Passover web page.

How will the event be publicized?
Online announcements and registration are often the most efficient way to go. Find out if you have a tech savvy congregant or lay or professional leader in your congregation who can design the announcement and post to your website or email to your congregational e-mail list. Alternatively, include an announcement in your bulletin or a post card that contains a sign-up sheet.

2) Choosing a Haggadah

There are so many Haggadot available for use today that listing them would be a futile experience. Below are a handful of suggestions. Most Haggadot include a list of items needed for the seder.

Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family, by Alan S. Yoffie, with illustrations by Mark Podwal. CCAR Press’ newest offering is designed to be inclusive for all attending the seder.

B’tzeit Yisrael: The Journey Continues, Ma’yan Passover Haggadah, edited by Tamara Cohen, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Debbie Friedman, Ronnie Horn, published by The Jewish Women’s Project, 1999. (ideal for a women’s seder).

A Children’s Haggadah, Edited by Howard Bogot and Rabbi Robert Orkand, Illustrated by Devis Grebu, published by CCAR Press, 1994. (ideal for a children’s seder)

A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah – by Noam Zion and David Dishon, published 1997. Go online for updated commentaries and teaching (a great “learning” Haggadah)

The Family Seder, by Alfred Kolatch, published by Jonathan David Publishers, 1967, revised edition 1991. (for a traditional seder)

Joyous Haggadah: The Illuminated Story of Passover, by Richard and Liora Codor, published by Looseline Productions, 2008. (ideal for a children’s seder)

The Open Door Haggadah – Edited by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Illustrated by Ruth Weisberg, published by CCAR Press, 2002.

A Passover Haggadah – Edited by Rabbi Hebert Bronstein, Illustrated by Leonard Baskin, published by CCAR Press, 1974 with revised editions in 1982 & 1994.

A Singing Haggadah, transcriptions by Ellen M. Egger, translations by Rabbi Arthur A. Chiel, published by L’Rakia Press, 1986. (a musically notated Haggadah)

…Or, make your own!

Develop your very own Haggadah by using software that contains Hebrew capability on Davka Writer or Microsoft Publisher. (Please remember that photo copying excerpts violates copyright laws.)

3) Cook Books

Some of your congregants may be interested in developing the menu and/or preparing food for your seder, but may also be in need of recipes and ideas. We recommend these cook books as a strong start:

Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora, by Tina Wasserman, published by URJ Books and Music, 2009.

A Jewish Calendar of Festive Foods, by Jane Portnoy, illustrations Robin Reich, and commentary by Cantor Marshall Portnoy, published 2011.

Passover by Design, by Susie Fishbein, published 2008.

4) Music

Consider these sources for Passover music, and don’t forget to look at the back of the Haggadah for notations for many of the key musical elements of the seder:

Sounds Write Productions for CDs: Whether you are looking for the traditional melodies of your childhood, for a new contemporary setting, for a choral sound or for the voices of children to include at your seder, there are many CDs to choose from at Sounds Write Productions. (Find several options here and here.) If no one at your seder is able to lead the melodies, turn on your favorite Passover recordings and sing along!

Uniquely suited for a women’s seder is the CD accompanying B’tzeit Yisrael: The Journey Continues, Ma’yan Passover Haggadah, featuring music composed by Debbie Friedman, z’l.

URJ Books and Music’s Seder Songs. A new anthology of music for use during a Passover seder is now available.It includes familiar favorites mixed with some world musical traditions, as well as contemporary tunes. Each volume contains two CDs: one with a full recording of the melody and the second with only accompaniment – facilitating a sing-a-long seder for all.

Parodies – Lots of folks have taken to writing specialized lyrics for familiar American folk melodies or Broadway tunes. This can be an easy way to engage in group singing. One example of this is “Take Me Out to the Seder” sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” They tend to surface on the internet shortly before the holiday. Here you can find some that have been collected over the years.

5) Designate a master of ceremonies

One person needs to have the “big picture” for running the actual ceremony of the seder. Your Planning Committee should work with the Master or Mistress of Ceremonies to agree on timing, paying particular attention to when the beginning section of the seder, the meal and the ending of the seder will occur.

6) Participation in the Seder

Following are the “must” parts of every seder. You can enact them traditionally or have some fun with them. At our seder, when our children were younger, we would have them dress up in costume and stage a performance enacting the Passover story. Perhaps at your seder you’ll ask each family to come prepared to lead a given section of the seder. The more creative you can be with this the more fun and engaging the seder will become for everyone there.

  1. Lighting the candles
  2. 1st Cup of wine
  3. Karpas (Parsley)
  4. Breaking the matzah (half becomes the afikoman)
  5. Telling the Passover story
  6. 2nd cup of wine
  7. Blessing over matzah
  8. Blessing over maror
  9. Blessing over the Hillel sandwich (charoset, matzah and maror together)
  10. Eat the meal
  11. Find the afikoman
  12. Grace after the meal
  13. 3rd cup of wine/Elijah
  14. Psalms of Praise
  15. 4th cup of wine

Cantor Alane Katzew is the URJ’s Worship, Music and Religious Living Specialist.

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3 Responses to “A Recipe for Preparing a Congregational Seder”

  1. avatar

    We have held many congregational seders over the years. They have usually been open to just congregants – or hillel students etc. Have thought about placing information about the seder in more public places, i.e. newspaper, facebook. We’d like to use it as an outreach to non-affiliated. In past have had inquiries from non-Jewish clergy and laypeople who would like nothing better than to come to a seder to “observe how we do it”. We are a small congregation and anticipate that we could quite easily end up with more than half of the participants attending with that idea if we accepted their reservations.
    Is there a way to share a seder as an outreach effort? How have others handled this type of thing?

  2. avatar

    Over the years, I have had the privilege of serving a number of congregations where outreach to the broader community was a value. In these situations the outreach aspect was done “separately” and equally. One such example was the community Seder held for senior citizens – where ambulatory residents of 20 different facilities in the community were all invited for a Seder. A meal with all the trimmings and a short basic Seder service provided the content of the program.
    If you were to consider opening a “congregational Seder” to the community, integrating visitors with the members of the Synagogue by table might be a first step toward success. It certainly would be a means of “keruv” or drawing near both unaffiliated Jews and extending welcome to non-Jews in the community.

  3. avatar

    This is a wonderful post — thank you for sharing it!

    At my small (Reform-affiliated) shul we use the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach (Abridged and Expanded version, 48 pages) – which is available for free download here: http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2012/01/velveteen-rabbis-haggadah-for-pesach-72-abridged-and-expanded.html

    Chag sameach to all!

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