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A ‘Big Jewish Idea’ is hiding in the Pesach seder

It's a scalable model of Jewish intergenerational community that celebrates interaction and dialogue between young and old
Painting by the Polish artist, Arthur Szyk, 1948 (Yeshiva University Museam / Center for Jewish History_
Painting by the Polish artist, Arthur Szyk, 1948 (Yeshiva University Museam / Center for Jewish History_

Pesach ends soon, but the Seder should continue because the next Jewish “big idea” is embedded in the Seder’s design. The Seder is often described as the paradigm par excellence for family and experiential education. Those descriptions are true but miss its greatest strength: the Seder is a scalable model of a Jewish intergenerational community. If Jewish communities transform from multigenerational to intergenerational, Judaism will experience a broad-based renewal.

Intergenerational and multigenerational sound alike but are not interchangeable. “Multigenerational” refers to the number of generations alive at one time. Sociologists and marketers count seven:

  1. 2016–: Generation Alpha
  2. 2001 to 2016: Generation Z
  3. 1980 to 2000: Millennials
  4. 1965 to 1979: Generation X
  5. 1946 to 1964: Baby Boomers
  6. 1925 to 1945: the Silent Generation
  7. 1900 to 1924: the Greatest Generation.

Every Erev Shabbat, I am reminded of the breathtaking span of years between our youngest and oldest generations. There is a 103-year-old age difference between my youngest grandchild and my oldest chavruta! It is amazing but not unusual for families to have such a vast age gulf between its youngest and oldest members. I record a brief parasha story for my Gen Alpha grandchildren and enjoy chavruta study on the parsha with my almost 94-year-old rabbi and 103-year-old friend.

Intergenerational, unlike multigenerational, is not a number but a value that motivates us to have friendships with older and younger people and not just acquaintances. Intergenerational means that members of one generation invest in the success of every generation and do not pit the interests of one generation against another. In addition to giving lip service to the phrase l’dor va-dor when we chant it during tefilot, l’dor va-dor means that having intergenerational communities is the norm and not the exception.

Why is it urgent for Jewish communities to pivot from multigenerational to intergenerational? A few reasons are:

  • Children are influenced by “someone” named Alexa, Siri, or Google voice at a young age. What happens when Alexa begins to shape the views of a three-year-old child more than a parent? One corrective to this danger is to structure our communities as intergenerational so that children interact more regularly with adults outside of school hours.
  • Along with a colleague, I recently conducted a survey of over six hundred Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial respondents for L’Dor va-Dor in a Digital Age, a book that we are co-authoring. An astounding ninety-six percent of respondents reported that it is “important” or “very important” that the Jewish community regularly includes members of all ages in its programs and services. An equally remarkable ninety-eight percent of respondents also reported that it is “important” or “very important” to interact with people from all generations.
  • In the same survey, respondents of all ages also reported their belief that the Jewish community engages in pressing social issues, including climate change, racial discrimination, and LGBTIQ discrimination. These issues provide intergenerational opportunities for shared learning and action.

Today, we have multigenerational Jewish communities. Jewish organizations and synagogues segregate children and teens, young adults, middle-aged adults, empty nesters, mature adults, and what I call “super seniors” (age 85 and older). Yes, one-off programs like a congregational Mitzvah Day or federation Super Sunday gather members of different generations together. But can you name a Jewish organization with an intergenerational board with equal representation from three or four generations? Or which synagogue has realized that having intergenerational communication, marketing, social justice, or education committee will draw on the diversity of the skills and wisdom of several generations and engage the whole and not just a part of an organization?

We highlight the role of children at the Seder. But that is half of the truth. When a Seder “works,” there is a dialogue across the generations. Young and old reciprocate and contribute equally to the seder experience. Older generations captivate younger ones with the drama of telling the Exodus and their wisdom of lived experience. Farewell to Pesach seder 5782, and welcome to beginning to turn l’dor va-dor from a slogan to an urgent call to action!

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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