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This may have some things in common with beginner's seder advice, but it's different enough that I'm asking separately.

For family-obligation reasons, I sometimes find myself at a seder where most of the people are not interested in the religious content -- the seder to them is a family reuinion with traditional elements. (I've already tried "let's get together on day 3 instead"; won't fly.) These are people who identify culturally but not religiously -- but they value home-based rituals for the sake of the ritual itself. All of the attendees are teens or adults.

I have already (mostly) found ways to fulfill my own halachic obligations in such a setting (helped by long-running meals). What, if anything, can I do to liven up this kind of seder and pique others' interest?

Should I bring midrashim that aren't in the haggadah (maybe people like stories)? Should I ask questions (that I'm prepared to then answer if needed) about the haggadah? Can I somehow make the theme of redemption more personal, in a way they could relate to? (How?)

I don't want to be seen as "preaching" but I would like to find a way to improve the situation.

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+1, thanks so much for asking this! –  sq33G Mar 22 '12 at 8:28
    
Have you considered that perhaps these people don't want to hear about it? I mean, these people are adults, right? Most likely, at some point they thought about these ideas and rejected them or decided they are not important enough to them? Like you said, "these people are interested in religious content". Why push it on them? –  NeedAdvice May 14 '12 at 7:31
    
@NeedAdvice, because I'm required to be there and I'd like to enjoy it too. (And a little kiruv, but that's secondary.) Per the question I'm not trying to preach but to invite. –  Monica Cellio May 14 '12 at 13:08
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@MonicaCellio The others are probably also required to be there and would probably also like to enjoy it. It's not enjoyable when someone tries to sell something to a captive audience. –  NeedAdvice May 14 '12 at 22:09
    
@NeedAdvice, I suggest you reread the question. –  Monica Cellio May 14 '12 at 22:53

9 Answers 9

I got here by googling "how to lead a decent seder"--if that's any indication of how things are going. We're famous for a visually exciting table (lice shampoo, boil ointment, a few dozen frogs), and we've got some fun traditions going (throwing ice for hail). But making things religiously meaningful is hard. It helps to visualize the guests and think of questions that would interest them. One year when we had a of teen and politically minded guests, we asked if we should pity the Egyptians (an obvious yes, we thought, but the teens saw pity as patronizing). That year we also got a lot of mileage out of the story of Nachshon (Would you have walked into the waves? If not, who do you know who would?) and out of the question about whether the rabbis who talked all night were actually plotting a rebellion. We all like voting, too, so whenever something can be voted on, we do it. And sometimes we talk about what we'd take with us if we were leaving Egypt in a hurry. (Sometimes we play a variation of that round game, where you're eliminated if you can't repeat what all the people before you listed--"I'm leaving Egypt RIGHT NOW and I'm taking my dog/wedding ring/glasses/yearbook etc." Actually, there's one other thing we do that I think engages people emotionally. We have a pretty blue wine cup that we set on the table somewhere as a way of including the people who aren't physically at the table--grandparents who've died, adult kids in other cities. Simply referring to the people we love sets the mood for thinking of this as an experience that includes people from all places and all times, outside of history but at the very center of history.

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya and thanks for these great suggestions! I've just added a couple items to my list of questions to have ready for this year. :-) I hope you enjoy the site -- perhaps you'd like to explore our other 75 questions tagged passover-seder-hagada. –  Monica Cellio Mar 24 '13 at 0:19
up vote 6 down vote accepted

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This "answer" records what I did this year and how it worked out. I drew from several suggestions in other answers here.

Some context: the two seders had different but overlapping groups of attendees. One has always been a "when do we eat?" seder; the other spends more time but replaces a lot of the traditional content with other readings and songs (mostly Zionist). It was hard to get the leaaders of the former to pause for any discussion, though we had some brief conversations farther down the table and a little during the meal. The other one ended up having better prospects.


Eytan Yammer suggested: Go around the table and have everyone finish a sentence "slavery is..." "freedom is..."

This idea really appeals to me. It makes it personal. I recast this as: Pesach is about freedom. We can be free from things and we can be free to do things. How are we free this year?"

What I learned: I think this would work well for a seder with friends, but the idea fell flat with a group of relatives who are there because you're expected to be there. This idea felt awkward to the people I proposed it to before the seder and I did not pursue it further. I will use this idea in other seder settings in the future.


Jake suggested: Get into "round-table" discussions related to the Exodus somehow, in which everyone is encouraged to voice their opinions on the subject at hand.

This worked, albeit not in the way I anticipated. I went prepared with ideas to throw out for discussion and people didn't much take the bait -- but it led to them asking questions, and once it wasn't coming from the most religious person at the table it worked well. The conversations were not necessarily deep, but people asked questions and offered answers -- score. (During the hurried seder when I saw somebody trying to speak I directly encouraged that person to ask his question -- if not then, then the following night. This happened.)


Seth J suggested (in a comment): have everyone go around the room reading and following the Haggadah for as long as everyone seems willing/able to pay attention.

This practice naturally arose at one seder (the latter one) and had to be pushed a little harder with the other. Sharing the reading increased participation (and that's a keeper); some people, however, read as quickly as they could to get it over with. Perhaps an explicit invitation to pass if you must (but we'd really like you to read) would address this.

Seth also suggested good wine: check. :-)


Eytan said: when you prepare think of questions more than answers.

Yes. Questions invited discussion, and a lot of them came back to people looking to me for answers but that has a very different dynamic than offering a d'var up front. (And none of my answers were long.)


Jake suggested more singing. One of the two seders is usually fairly musical and the other not; I was able to help both of them do more music by the simple expedient of just started to sing (rather than waiting for consensus to arise). It probably helps that I have a pretty good voice (at least according to the other attendees).


I did not get to try Eytan's suggestions about art or personalized readings, nor Jake's and Gershon's suggestions about table toys/puzzles.


To summarize:

Anything I could do to prompt other people to ask questions -- planting ideas, reaching out to hesitant people, helping side/dinner conversations happen -- worked well. Asking questions about the text, the haggadah, etc worked; asking people to personalize it did not work in this setting (but would in others).

Coming prepared to present material was not needed, or helpful. People didn't want unsolicited teaching, but answers to their questions are completely different.

Sharing the reading among willing participants worked; pushing people who don't want to read to read led to rushed, mumbled reading, not engagement.

Singing worked well, and it was ok to just jump in and not wait for permission.

In the future I hope to build on this foundation.

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It feels odd to accept this answer, but I want to signal that I got the help I needed. Thanks all. –  Monica Cellio Apr 12 '12 at 18:37

As I understand it, the reciting of the Haggadah and the various "different things" we do is to incite others to ask questions. So make it clear from the start if there is anything, anyone wants to know, then arrange some sort of signal ahead of time to recognize an interruption in the reading, just so that they can easily ask their question in a timely manner.

It could be a something like snapping of the fingers, a clap, whatever, to just attract attention of whoever is reading. The answer(s) generated should keep people interested, laughing, and more comfortable to ask additional questions.

Have a great Seder or two!

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Thanks for the suggestion. So far the problem has been getting people to engage enough to even ask questions, not that people are getting stomped on. –  Monica Cellio Mar 23 '12 at 3:05

There are a couple of things that I do to engage people who may not be initially interested in sharing their thoughts.

Go around the table and have everyone finish a sentence "slavery is..." "freedom is..."

Do some prep work and print out a different quote for each person at the table. It can be from literature, torah, art whatever. Last year I chose several about the value of stories telling stories. At the beginning of the seder I give each person a few minutes to read the passage and then ask them to speak up if it applies or if they find it relevant to the discusion taking place later in the seder.

when you prepare think of questions more than answers. If you ask people and really listen to their answers they are much more likely to engage than if you tell them divrei torah.

It may also be worthwhile to email the attendees a short essay/dvar torah/food for thought questions a week or so before the sedarim so that they come to the seder more prepared.

There are some people who will connect more through art than through reading and words. Before Yom Tov print out several depictions of the four sons or the splitting of the sea and pass them around the table. People who are artistic will love that you are reacing out to them where they are as appose to presuming that they must come to you.

The More prepared you are the better you will be able to direct the conversation without taking it over.

I hope that this helped.

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Thanks for the good suggestions! Going around the table with a question and bringing different supplementary readings (so everyone has something novel) seem like great additions. (I don't get to lead these seders, but they're small enough that I can make those kinds of contributions.) –  Monica Cellio Mar 23 '12 at 3:04
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I'm going to see if I can get people to engage with this question: we can be free from something, like slavery, and free to do something, like receive torah. Do you feel more freedom from or freedom to this year, and what about? (I'll refine that wording, but that's the idea.) –  Monica Cellio Apr 5 '12 at 17:05
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I think that is a great idea. You can introduce the concept of freedom from egypt as being freedom to serve God. You can then ask people to say one thing that they have freed themselves from this year and one thing they will choose to do with that freedom. Fantastic ideas! –  Eytan Yammer Apr 6 '12 at 2:04

My experience is, no matter how uninteresting religion is to some, when it comes to the Seder (or when discussion Agada) at least one person is always interested in hearing some cool stories or crazy Midrashim.

What I'm planning on this year with my two older brothers and my cousin is the following (the rest of the group aren't really so interested): trying to interest everyone with one topic is not very plausible,so I came up with the idea to make a fun-filled non-stop Seder. Meaning, there is never a time that we leave open for people to get bored or start talking non-sense. Thus, when we ran out of Divrei Torah we resort to songs, additional prayers and cool Pesach Minhagim that nobody does.

Be'ezrat Hashem it will work!!!

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Do you have a source for that? ;) –  Baal Shemot Tovot Mar 22 '12 at 20:07
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What are some of your favorite crazy midrashim? –  Monica Cellio Mar 23 '12 at 3:06

I think if people go into it with the attitude that they're going to be bored and it's just a ritual, don't try shoving things down their throats.

One gimmick might be to "beep" out anyone if they mention Moshe's name (the original haggada made a point of leaving it out; we've since thrown in a paragraph in which it pops up once). Another idea is to outline the Maggid. "Here's the Exodus narrative as described in retrospect from a farmer's viewpoint."

But if you don't have buy-in, don't expect a magical perfect dvar torah to totally do it. The goal may just be to make sure you fulfill your obligations, that you maintain decent ties with the family, and if possible, that the relatives get in as much of their basic obligations as possible.

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"From a farmer's viewpoint": actually, too, it might make it interesting - if the participants are into that kind of thing - to get a copy of the Ipuwer Papyrus and have people read sections of it. Whether the events it describes are those of the Ten Plagues or not (no two historians agree on that), it gives some idea of how the Egyptians actually experienced and reacted to the plagues. –  Alex Mar 22 '12 at 0:18

Strangely enough, I have found that those who aren't interested will tend to go with the flow if you state from the outset that you're going to read through the Hagadah. It will be dry. It may be boring. But if they are mature enough (not particularly opposed to ritual, and your question implies that they are not), just give everyone a Hagadah and say you're going to go around the table and everyone will read a paragraph or two, and they should be willing to do that as a ritual. The dipping, the wine,* the Matzah, the Maror, etc., may not interest them, but you can fulfill your obligations with those easily without their cooperation, and who doesn't like to sing Mah NiShtana and Dayenu and harken back to their old beloved (beloathed?) Hebrew school days?

I think long-winded Divrei Torah will probably not go over well, and over the top shtick would probably be too much of a distraction and lead to the end of any hope of getting back to the program.

But, if everyone is respectful and well behaved, I wouldn't be too surprised if they'll go along with the "let's all take turns reading" approach. They might not get through the entire thing, and you may find yourself reading the rest on your own during dinner, but give it a shot and see how far you can get with them.

I have some other advice if you want to talk in chat or exchange email.

*They'll probably go for the wine if you get something nice. ;-)

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+1, especially for "They might not get through the entire thing". ;-) –  msh210 Mar 21 '12 at 16:46
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Thanks for the suggestions. I don't control these seders (I can't choose the haggadah either), but I can bring good wine. :-) –  Monica Cellio Mar 23 '12 at 3:02
    
@monicacellio Then I'll amend my suggestion. Offer the wine (after arriving early, if possible, to help set up) and suggest to the host(s) that they have everyone go around the room reading and following the Haggadah for as long as everyone seems willing/able to pay attention. A lot of times people, after going through the Haggadah for the first time (or first time in a long time) look back at it and say, "Wow, that was actually a lot more interesting than I expected/remembered." –  Seth J Mar 23 '12 at 4:37
    
@SethJ, thanks. It sounds like a big part of it is overcoming pre-judgements about the haggadah in favor of just trying it anyway. Good insight. –  Monica Cellio Mar 23 '12 at 12:48
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@MonicaCellio That's all I'm saying. Basically, if they like you enough to want you to come, they would (hopefully) be willing to incorporate your ideas into the evening's agenda. They're all there because of tradition, why not throw in some actual tradition, then? –  Seth J Mar 23 '12 at 13:30

A few ideas:

  • Get into "round-table" discussions related to the Exodus somehow, in which everyone is encouraged to voice their opinions on the subject at hand. For example, citing the midrash about how the redemption was deserved by the Jews for not changing their "Jewish" attire and names can incite a socio-historical discussion about the role of assimilation in Jewish history. The ten plagues can incite a philosophical discussion about Pharaoh's free will. The passage about God directly redeeming the Jews (not by angel or messenger) can incite a theological discussion about God's providential role in general. There are so many topics one can relate to the haggada, and sometimes you'd be surprised at who has strong opinions about certain subjects.
  • A lot of singing. People who attend the seder for ritualistic purposes often want to hear the "classic traditional" songs (i.e. "Ha lachma anya", "Mah Nishtana", "Avadim Hayinu", "Dayenu" etc.) Find someone with a voice who knows the tunes and have him/her lead the singing.
  • For those who get bored in the middle, have the table sprinkled with stuff to do, like those kind of trinket-puzzles that can take time to solve, or little toys that are fun to play with. (You'd be surprised how much stuff you can find that can be indirectly "passover-related", e.g. pyramid puzzles, hopping frogs, wind-up locusts, etc.) This usually works to occupy kids and even bored adults.
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Another good section to start discussion with is the 4 sons - especially the same wording used with both the rasha and chacham –  Daniel Mar 22 '12 at 5:39
    
Good suggestions, thanks! I hadn't thought at all about having things to play with on the table; plenty of adults would get into that too. :-) You've suggested some good areas for me to bring provocative questions about. –  Monica Cellio Mar 23 '12 at 2:59
    
I'm going to try for round-table discussions, plus Eytan Yammer's suggestion to "complete this sentence" (see my comment there). Plus singing. I hope to report back (and accept an answer) next week. –  Monica Cellio Apr 5 '12 at 17:08

One thing which I have seen that helps make the Seder interesting is the Seder Makkos kit. Another item which is helpful is The Survival Kit Family Haggadah.

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The makos kit looks like it's for kids. For some reason I though the question was asking about adults, but, on rereading, I realize that it doesn't specify as much. Perhaps the asker can clarify one way or the other. –  msh210 Mar 21 '12 at 15:46
    
that is why I put in both items. –  Gershon Gold Mar 21 '12 at 15:49
    
@msh210, sorry for the ambuity. Adults and some teens. –  Monica Cellio Mar 21 '12 at 15:50

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