Seder in Anchorage’s Lubavitcher community

Last week was a perfect storm of faith community gatherings, celebrations and commemoration. I attended two Seders — Protestant and Jewish — and an Easter service. The previous Sunday, I attended a Ganesh Puja at the Sri Ganesha Temple of Alaska, the northernmost Hindu temple in the world. I hope to write about that in a future column, but suffice to say, I enjoy meeting people of faith wherever they gather. Expressions of deep faith, regardless of my personal beliefs and no matter where I find them, are wonderful to see and experience, expanding my knowledge of our community’s customs.

Lubavitcher Seder

The Jewish tradition of celebrating Seder has fascinated me, partly due to this marvelous story of Jewish liberation from slavery as recorded in the Torah in the Book of Exodus, and partly because of its contemporary parallel in today’s culture. Seder is a Passover celebration in the Jewish tradition rooted in its scriptural centrism. Some Jews celebrate Seder in their homes during Passover with friends and guests. I’ve been told some of these celebrations can last many hours. Community Seders are offered at Jewish synagogues for members and the community. (For explanation of Lubavitcher, see http://tinyurl.com/m4m2nhk)

I attended the Jewish community Seder at the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska on April 3, the first night of Passover. (Last year, I celebrated Seder with Congregation Beth Sholom, reviewing that experience in a previous column.)

I was warmly welcomed when I entered Lubavitch Jewish Center and made my way to the synagogue. In the hallway outside, I was repeatedly welcomed by various members of the Jewish community, making me feel as welcome as if it was my home. Assistant Rabbi Levi Glitsenstein warmly greeted me. Soon Rabbi Yosef Greenberg came, ensuring I was seated with a congenial group of people. My table included a newly met couple from Anchor Point, the curator of the Alaska Jewish Museum, and a recent member from South Africa. I soaked up the conversation as the evening progressed, learning much about Jewish practices.

Rabbi Greenberg’s wife, Esther, was responsible for the Seder, its presentation, serving, and beautifully decorated tables. Greenberg’s daughter Mushky, and wife of Rabbi Glitsenstein, organized the marvelous participation of the youth and younger ones in the festivities of the evening. The synagogue was full with tables set for six to eight people.

The Seder follows key readings from the Haggada, contained in approximately 150 pages, including the history, prayers, blessings, and key elements of the Seder and their significance. Throughout the evening those assembled were encouraged to participate verbally during these readings, partaking of the various elements literally and symbolically. Both rabbis led out in these communal readings.

Seder follows these key elements: Kaddish: blessings and first cup of wine; Ur’chatz: hand washing for vegetables, Karpas: appetizer dipped in saltwater, Yachatz: middle matzo breaking, Magid: the Passover story, Rohtzah: ritual hand washing, Motzi Matzo: matzo blessing, Maror: eating of the bitter herbs, Koreich: making a matzo sandwich with bitter herbs, Shulchan Orech: the meal, Tzafun: afikoman eating, Bareich: after meal prayer, Hallel: praise songs, Nirtzah: say “Next year in Jerusalem.” In all, four cups of wine are drunk during this celebratory meal.

As Greenberg introduced each of these sections of the Seder, he would either ask those gathered a question, or relate a brief anecdote regarding the significance the particular item. I found it an exciting learning experience, because he phrased his questions in such a way that all would have to stretch their knowledge and imagination to follow him. During countless visits in the faith community, I’ve found it extremely rare that a spiritual leader follows this question-and-answer approach to elicit responses. It was a true learning experience.

It also extended to the children and youth. A key part of the service is devoted to the “four questions,” posed to the younger ones and prefaced by a general question — “What makes this night different from all [other] nights?” — that is answered in 4 parts: 1. On all nights we need not dip even once, on this night we do so twice; 2. On all nights we eat chametz or matzo, and on this night only matzo; 3. On all nights we eat any kind of vegetables, and on this night maror; 4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline.

The children responded beautifully. After the meal there was traditional dancing by groups of men and women, separately, to “Hava Nagila” in long hand-clasped lines circling around two or three tables. It was breathtaking to look and listen. The words mean “let us rejoice, let us sing, awaken brethren.” Another song sung was “Dayenu,” which means “it would have been sufficient.” A lengthy song, a typical verse is “If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!”

Concluding impressions

My first impression of the Lubavitcher community is one of warmth; to each other, and to strangers. Rarely do I experience this kind of hospitality in any faith community. Next, I loved how this group showed they lived their history through this celebration where every element is designed with meaning. I was thrilled seeing the training and support they give to their younger generations. So many faith congregations just plow the surface. This one plows lasting and deep. My visit was not without some minor learning experiences. Going back thousands of years, these people have developed a unique set of traditions that serve them well. Although I committed a few faux pas, I learned from them and have nothing but admiration for this wonderful faith community.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

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