IAM SITTING next to the late, much respected Reverend Saul Amias. In front of me is a paper plate, decked with my nemesis —- a hard-boiled egg — a food I cannot abide. What has put me in this position? I have been chosen as imma at my school’s model Seder. The awkwardness of this social situation is still with me almost 50 years later — but transformed into a cherished memory of early Jewish education. Though I still skip the eggs in salt water.
Many more fond memories will be forged this Passover, as Jewish schools around the country stage their own model Sedarim. Below, Ruth Rothenberg looks into the mammoth exercise.
A highlight of the Jewish school year, this vast enterprise involving children, staff and parents and lasting between one and two hours, never fails to impress. The last week of the school term, which this year covers the first week of April, will see school halls reverberating to enthusiastic shouts of
Dayenu or the 10 plagues, shouted with gusto. Every age group takes this at a different level, incorporating more of the original text and songs as they rise up the school ladder.
“This is not a presentation and not a performance,” says Tamar Cohen, head of Jewish studies and deputy head at Wolfson Hillel primary. It is not a rehearsal, either. “This is a learning process.”
The 455-strong school in Southgate, north London divides its children into five age bands for the model Seder.
The youngest start with a singalong, helped by their parents who take the songsheet home. Their slightly older reception mates make a stab at going through the story, pinning down the hagadah highlights, such as Mah
Nishtanah, the plagues and Echad Mi
Yodea. A major step comes with the five- and six-year-olds. Parents are proud spectators now, as their children explain the meaning of the extracts they sing and recite.
“Every child does a Seder at a family gathering somewhere,” says Cohen. “With this, they can take their learning home with them and hold their own at table.” The seven-to-nine-year-olds
can each invite two adults, who need not be parents. The two senior years of the school have separate Sedarim, ensuring everyone gets a good look at the text and really learns the storyline. In the top year, parents sit with their children and may participate in riddle exchanges. It is part of a move to keep both generations engaged as youngsters enter their pre-teens.
In Leeds, at the Brodetsky Jewish Primary School, nursery children come to school in their Shabbat best for their Seder and parents are allowed to attend. Each year holds its own event but parents do not attend again until year, six, when the Seder is held in school but after lesson hours.
The children build up their knowledge in Jewish studies lessons. It is a thorough process. As one teacher says: “My son has been doing this since the age of two and he is now seven. He could lead a Seder.” And yes, the loudest shouts are for Dayenu.
At King David Primary School Manchester, with 420 pupils, the past is brought to the present for nursery and reception years by putting youngsters on stage as news presenters, who introduce a “correspondent’s live report” on “events in Egypt”.
After scenes of children toiling with piles of bricks and then pretending to be Egyptians going through each of the plagues, they all sit down at tables with their parents to follow the Seder, singing traditional and new songs, drinking “wine” (grape juice) and eating matzah, maror (lettuce), karpas (parsley) and charoset, not to mention hard-boiled eggs in salt water, all thoughtfully prepared by the parents’ guild, vital to this operation.
Lower down the school, children learn through songs and acting. As they move up, they study more of the Hebrew text and its meaning.
“Our aim is to educate the children,” says Rayna Glickman, leader of learning for Jewish studies, “so that they are able to contribute to their own Seder at home and continue our beautiful Jewish heritage.”
Birmingham’s King David Primary, with around 240 children, is unusual in not relying on parental help with catering. Kitchen staff prepare the food plates and grape-juice glasses. Parents of the top year only are invited as guests.
Nursery and reception pupils read a few sections of the hagadah but mostly sing their much-loved songs, in English, about Pharoah and the frogs.They are gradually introduced to Hebrew with the Dayenu chorus. The next three years build on this with Mah Nishtanah and other extracts but still keeping the old favourites, notably Let My People Go, while teachers act out the story, playing Moses or a taskmaster.
In the top three years, individual children introduce and explain the narrative passages, such as Avadim
hayinu, before chanting them all together. For practical reasons, just one or two children perform the hand-washing but everyone recites the blessing.
The older ones also learn songs from the end of the hagadah. “We do not do the whole hagadah,” says teacher Carol Cooper. “We have made our own school version, which goes into more depth for what what we do.”
But none of this description can get to the core of what is simply a lovely heart-warming experience. So if you ever have the chance to attend a school model Seder, grab it. And if you can take the songsheet home, that’s a bonus.