The Passover seder at my home growing up probably sounds familiar-family and friends coming together, learning through arguing, a fair share of complaining, and eventually eating lots of good food. It's the stereotypical definition of Jewish culture that so many of us know and love.
But beyond the stereotypes, Passover reflects a deeper truth about Jewish identity. Despite a similar order of events, each seder is influenced by and infused with the customs of one's particular family, time, and surrounding culture. This is what it means to be Jewish-to bring our tradition into conversation with our other identities and let each one affect the other.
This year, for the first time, I'll be celebrating Passover at Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, which I believe similarly can provide us with a great snapshot of Jewish life at Northwestern.
From a big-picture perspective, we will be doing on Passover what we do all year round. We're hosting different seders to meet the needs of diverse subsets of our Jewish community-a Greek seder for members of various sororities and fraternities, a musical seder, a seder for the Reform Community, and more. We'll also be connecting students with families in the larger Jewish community for seders off campus, as well as providing students with the materials they need to host their own seder.
At Hillel, we encourage students to take ownership over their Jewish identity and experience. This is what Passover is all about: inheriting a story and retelling it in a way that is meaningful and relevant to us.
From a more detailed perspective, the amazing work that our individual student groups accomplish embodies the many values that permeate the seder.
"In each generation every individual is obligated to see oneself as though s/he left Egypt." This Mishnah in Pesachim (9:5) is the motivation for the haggadah. Interestingly, Maimonedes reads this with a slight variation: each individual is obligated to "show oneself as though s/he has left Egypt." This change has a profound implication; instead of reading about the exodus, we have to re-enact it. Hillel's Jewish Theatre Ensemble, which has already produced three powerful performances this year including The Diary of Anne Frank, understands that we internalize memory and values through performance.
"We are now exempt from asking the four questions." (Babylonian Talmud 115b). Rabah declared this after his pupil Abeye asked a question on Passover night about removing plates before the meal. We learn from here that the purpose of the four questions is solely to get people to ask questions. Questions that Matter, a Hillel group that facilitates deep conversations, operates under the same guiding principle as Rabah: the key to growth is through questions, not answers.
"All who are hungry, let them come and eat." While many people simply recite this line on Passover night, our students internalize its message. Challah for Hunger, which bakes Challah every week at Hillel, donates all of its proceeds to fight hunger locally and internationally.
"Let us then recite before God a new song, Halleluyah." We end the story of the exodus in song because the rabbis understood that the greatest expression of gratitude and joy was through music. Shireinu, Hillel's Jewish a cappella group, continues to recreate Jewish music and spread joy throughout campus and the country (they recently placed third at Kol Ha Olam, the National Jewish a cappella competition!).
This reflects only some of the amazing work that our students are doing on campus. If you really want to understand the extent of our impact, you'll have to come experience it yourself.
Rabbi Aaron Potek serves as the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in June 2013.
Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University is part of the Department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement, Jewish United Fund /Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.