Ask the Expert: Making Everyone Happy at the Seder

How do I reduce conflict at my seder?

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Question: Every year my seder is a mess. Half the family wants to do the whole haggadah from start to finish, discussing every section. The other half of the family just wants to get to the meal already, and complains about those who want to have a longer discussion. How can I keep everyone happy?
–Dina, Chicago

ExpertAnswer: I know exactly how you feel, Dina. I’ve been to many a seder with a division like yours. Some people are just more inclined to get excited about the seder than others. But there are some ways to make the whole thing more palatable to everyone.

I spoke with David Wolkin, Coordinator of Elementary and Family Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York, about your conundrum. He said, “The seder as a ritual brings home a lot of what is difficult about Jewish life. It’s forcing a family dynamic. But in my opinion it’s the best curriculum that’s ever been written because it’s designed to teach and it’s also designed to be changed.” Did you catch that part about change? That’s the key. David said, “No family should treat a seder as, ‘This is basically a book that we have to read tonight.’ It’s everyone’s job to find a way into the story that is being told.”

So how do you make sure that even the haggadah-haters at your seder connect to the story? David suggests putting the haggadah down, and maybe even sitting in the living room for the pre-meal portion of the evening. That way, you can recline, and relax. Nobody minds hanging out and talking in the living room for an hour before a meal, and the structure of the seder will feel more laid back when you’re not sitting at an elaborately set meal.

David also recommended setting a time limit. Feel free to say, “From the start of the seder until the meal we’re going to spend an hour.” That way, those who are bored always know when it’s going to be over. It also prevents the people who love discussing everything from going on too long.

I also consulted with Vanessa Ehrlich, the Educational Director at Lakeside Congregation in Highland Park, IL. Vanessa said that her husband has implemented a great policy for their seder. Every year, he picks a theme for each seder, and he emails everyone who will be attending some readings having to do with that theme. That way, everyone shows up at the seder with some thoughts and reactions that can fuel the discussion. It also ensures that they don’t just end up taking turns reading the same tired old text.

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