With Passover Attendance Down, U.S. Jews Are Still in Egypt

New data indicates a dramatic drop in U.S. Jews attending a Passover Seder. They are missing a vital opportunity to enjoy their religious freedom.

Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
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A Ukrainian 19th-century lubok representing the Seder table.
A Ukrainian 19th-century lubok representing the Seder table.
Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch

According to alarming new data, this year only 60 to 70 percent of American Jews attended a Passover seder.

As late as the 1990s, 90 percent of U.S. Jews in the national population survey reported attending a seder. But various studies from 2013, reported in The Jewish Week, show that only twenty years later the number has gone down dramatically.

I find this troubling for many reasons. Unlike other holidays whose language may seem distant to modern Jews, Passover is a holiday whose themes speak to modern values. So much so, that the Seder has continually been used now, and historically, as a platform to connect the story to contemporary issues such as the Holocaust , feminism, the release of Soviet Jewry, etc. Unlike the Haggadah's famous all-night Seder in Bnei Brak that lasted all night, attending a Seder these days also does not require as much of a time commitment as it used to (unless of course, you are hosting). There are websites that tout a Seder as short as thirty minutes.

So if American Jews are unwilling to sit down for Passover, what hope is there that they will connect to anything else?

I recently attended a Torah study with Dr. Erica Brown, the scholar in residence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She reminded me of an oft-quoted teaching of the biblical commentator Rashi about the number of Jews who left Egypt. The Torah teaches us that the Israelites left Egypt chamushim, with weapons. But, why supposes Rashi, would this have been necessary? Wouldn’t they have assumed that God would fight on their behalf? Rather, Rashi teaches us that chamush is linked to the word chamesh, which means a fifth. The Israelites, it turned out, did not all leave Egypt. Only one-fifth of the Jewish people left, while Rashi tells us that the other 80% died in the plague of darkness.

Here, I would like to suggest that we can read Rashi metaphorically. Throughout Jewish history, there have always been Jews who have refused to leave Egypt because they were, as we would say today, "left in the dark." Rashi reminds us that this, in some sense, is the real definition of what it means to be a slave. Slavery for Jews living relatively comfortably in the Diaspora is not about a cruel Pharaoh or about government oppression. It is not simply about being offered an opportunity to be free, as modern society offers us. It is about choosing willingly to walk through a door that has been opened.

For me, the fact that so many people failed to attend a Passover Seder this year, no matter what its level of ritual, points out the degree to which so many Jews remain in slavery by failing to walk through the door to freedom. Passover remains a vital opportunity to practice our religious freedom, and as a grateful American who is appreciative for the religious freedom he enjoys, I find it frustrating and sad that so many Jews will fail to walk through that door.

This Passover, let us remember that no Jewish person deserves to remain in slavery. Now that the data has been called to my attention, as an American Jewish communal leader I understand how much work we still have to do. Rashi reminds us that even in the worst of circumstances only 20% of Jews ever left Egypt. In America where we are "free," it seems we still have much more work to do.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.

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