Ali Reingold and her son Jordan participated in the class model seder.

Fifth graders at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor put their heads together to add modern-day elements to the Passover story.

By Ruth Ebenstein

Photography by Ali Reingold

Imagine that you’ve been commissioned with dedicating the Four Cups traditionally drunk at the Passover Seder to spotlight modern-day topics of social import. You get to decide what or whom you most want to honor, what you most want to change in the world.

What would you choose?

The fifth graders at Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor were assigned this task. They put their heads together, brainstormed, jotted down ideas in their notebooks. The class voted, and ranked these areas as their top four: Education; Health and Research for cures for diseases; Assisting those who suffer from poverty; and Protectors and Safety Officers, including fire fighters, police officers and EMTs. (Previous years included peace in Israel, equality/no prejudice, families, health, freedom, animals, and tikkun olam, repairing the world).

One of the ways young people can “inhabit” ancient history as if they were personally liberated from Egypt is by connecting it to their modern-day thoughts, ideas and concerns. They can thus access something foreign to them in space, time and experience. As such, the Passover Seder is made personally relevant to the children.

In that vein, the fifth graders were asked to list ten “Modern Plagues” they hope to eliminate. On that roster:
• War, bombs, and terrorism
• Global warming, pollution, and the loss of animal habitats
• Sickness, not having cures for all sicknesses (like cancer), allergies, and lice
• Poverty, which can mean hunger, homelessness, and a lack of health care and education
• Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, fires
• Crime, including murder, stealing, and kidnapping
• Situations that leave children as orphans
• Bad politics, such as evil rulers and high taxes
• Inequality and prejudice, such as sexism, racism, not treating immigrants fairly, religious persecution, and modern slavery
• Not having enough resources and not sharing resources fairly

Individual expressions of gratitude were inserted into the crowd-pleasing “Dayeinu.” Kids chimed in with appreciation for gymnastics, baseball, pets, art, a hockey team, family, books, and chocolate.

Enjoying the afikoman are fifth-graders Lilah Stein and Nina Olson

But to my mind, the most creative was what Lisa Bernstein, their fifth-grade Judaic Studies teacher, did with the afikoman. Instead of hiding it in a physical place, she hid it in “time.” “It’s hard to sneak away in a classroom setting when I’m leading the seder,” quipped Bernstein. “So I no longer hide it in a place. Instead, I hide it in history.”

Spanning topics that the fifth graders had studied over the year in Jewish history as well as Bible stories, Bernstein chose a person, time and place, and invited her class to “hunt” for the afikoman by playing a game of Twenty Questions.

Hands shot up in the air. Is it from the 10th century? Did the person live in the time of the Torah? Is it on a ship with immigrants coming to America? Building off each other’s ideas, the students lead each other down a thoughtful path. With their voices intermingled and raised excitedly, they seemed far more taken with the journey than the prize. OMG, was it that rabbi we learned about?

“Is it with Rashi?” asked Livnat, 11. Indeed, the medieval Torah commentator had stashed it in his vineyard in Northern France. Bernstein smiled and started handing out jelly candy. Then, with eyes alive and luminous, she dropped hints for other possible hiding places.

“In other years, the afikoman could just as easily have been tucked under Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s arm as he marched in Selma, cradled with Noah on the ark, lodged in King David’s palace in Jerusalem, stored with Ruth amidst her gleanings from the field, propped with Judah the Maccabee in a cave in Israel, or hidden with Emma Lazarus inside her poems in the 1800s.”

Incorporating children’s voices and values into the text brings freshness and excitement into the Seder, shared Ali Reingold, current and alumni parent and Admissions Director at Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. “They’ve made it something that’s all their own.”

And what’s striking is how the students take this Jewish holiday so intently focused on freedom and liberation and connect it to the value of education, noted Jen Rosenberg, Head of School.

“Being asked to offer their view of the modern day plagues sends a clear message to our students that they have a role to play in creating change. In dedicating the first cup of wine to education, they send a strong message to us that they view knowledge as the most empowering and necessary ingredient for them to become the problem solvers, the inventors, the changemakers – the people who will have the power and passion to make a difference and who will labor to make sure that these are not the plagues of the future.”

Seder is a night of embodied memory. Weaving in modern overtones of social activism and justice at this early tender age? Well, I can certainly drink to that!

Click to view students’ renditions of the Four Cups of Wine and modern-day plagues: