Letting Young Jews Lead the Conversation in the Diaspora

The unique Passover seder I attended this year just might offer the answer the to generation gap over Jewish faith.

Kobi Gideon / Baubau

I don't usually look forward to the Passover seder. While I relish the time I spend with family and friends, I dread the long, arduous crawl through the various passages of the magid – the storytelling section. This year, we flipped the magid on its head: My parents, the leaders of the seder, let the young people in the room direct the conversation.

Putting young people in the driver’s seat changed my Passover, but it symbolizes the way American Jewry can change more broadly.

It started with a blog post. My father, Jonathan Cannon, a Jewish educator, made a novel suggestion for structuring Passover eve: What if the young people at the seder answered the questions, instead of asking them? Usually, the magid begins with the youngest person at the table reading out four questions. The rest of the table responds with answers written in the haggadah. This year, the older generations listened to the answers that the young people had.

Fascinating conversations ensued. We had in-depth discussions about whether faith is central to Judaism; about interfaith marriage; about Israel, social justice and the Jewish relationship to various manifestations of intersectional oppression. In stark contrast to past seders, my parents had to remind me that it was late and everyone was getting hungry.

The fact that I forgot about dinner is a testament to the more personally transformative aspects of the evening. But its implications go well beyond the two nights we tried my parents’ experiment.

My dad’s premise is that there is a generational gap in how Jews apprehend the important tenets of our faith. He argued that if we want Jewish life to thrive, the older generation, now sitting at the helm of Jewish communal institutions, will have to change to accommodate the younger one. That’s not a particularly novel concept; there is no shortage of older Jews decrying the state of the community and worrying about the future. The key is the suggestion: Stop trying to diagnose the problem using outmoded ideas. Instead, listen. Empower young Jews to act on their own ideas and values.

During the seder, we did that on a micro level. During the magid, we put our haggadahs down. I helped draft a supplement about social justice that we used instead. The young people in the roomed steered the conversation and set the agenda. In that sense, we didn’t just suggest a new model for Judaism, we actualized it. Our seder was a microcosm of what Jewish American life could be; the generation everyone is constantly worrying about was allowed to take the lead. My siblings, my friends and I were energized. What do we have to lose by scaling that model?

But it’s equally important to point out that listening is just a first step. My dad was inspired to write his blog post when he learned that a distinctly non-kosher restaurant in Washington D.C. was hosting a seder. That restaurant was advancing a novel strategy meant to address declining interest in the traditional Passover seder among Jews. We addressed the same issue, albeit in a slightly different way. It just so happened that the action needed to garner the interest of young people in the seder was let us define the conversation.

But the topics we brought up - interfaith marriage, Israel/Palestine, and oppression worldwide - require more than dialogue. We have to demonstrate willingness to both have the challenging conversations, and to make the tough choices they inevitably lead to.  

Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon