Cantor creates hands-free Seder
For the past nine years, the Kessler family of Bethel has been working on its new Passover tradition — a hands-free Seder.
Instead of reading from a Haggadah, they each take turns reading from a PowerPoint presentation of a modern-style Haggadah, Penny Kessler created.
Although she hadn’t seen one before, Kessler said she thought the idea of a hybrid seder was “interesting.”
“Many congregations were experimenting with hands-free worship services with prayer texts and graphics projected on screens. At the same time, my family and I were exploring replacing our older family Haggadot with newer ones. Because that is a very expensive endeavor, I thought about creating our own,” said Kessler, who is cantor at the United Jewish Center in Danbury. Aside from her husband, Stanley — a dentist — and their three children — Alaina, Warren and Harrison, she usually has about a dozen guests in her home for Passover.
The first hands-free seder she made, in 2010, was very “rudimentary and low tech,” Kessler said, adding the hardest part was determining how to pull it all together.
“I was just getting used to the idea and wasn’t sure that going completely ‘offbook in-hand’ would work,” she said.
It took many weeks to create a new Haggadah. Kessler used the website Haggadot.com as a key resource.
“We projected the presentation with a screen set up on a small table in our living room that’s connected to a laptop. We sat around in comfortable chairs, enjoyed the Seder foods and wine as appetizers, took turns reading, singing, and enjoying the rubrics, clips videos, and graphics — all while experiencing a full Seder,” Kessler said.
“It was pretty primitive but it was a lot of fun,” she added.
Through trial and error, she eventually got the system down.
“I learned on the job,” she said. “I’m pretty much the family techie; My children help me choose the resources and do the layout.”
Two years ago, the Kessler family decided to go all-in with the new concept.
The hardest part, Kessler said, is the amount of work involved, such as “making sure I don’t create a threehour experience, making sure I’m using material that won’t insult anyone, and keeping it original — especially if we’re having the same guests from year to year.”
She tailors — with her family’s help — the Haggadot specifically for the sensitivities and sensibilities of her guests, such as political jabs, current events and TV shows.
“Using political cartoons or parody video clips has to be done with discretion,” Kessler said.“For example, last year we invited Stanley’s dental office staff, none of whom had ever attended a Seder; and I tailored the Seder/Haggadah specifically with the interfaith learning possibilities in mind.”
The part of the experience Kessler said was the “most fun” was the “innovation, using some culturally contemporary video clips about Passover that I thought were quirky.”
Kessler has anywhere from three to a dozen guests at her Passover Seder each year.
“Since we don’t go handsfree every year, we get a chance to a lot of tweaking,” she said.
Longtime Kessler friends Nancy and Rob Brown, of Katonah, N.Y., enjoyed the hands-free Seder, Nancy Brown said.
“We have shared Seders fairly often over the past 10 to 15 years, for traditional Seders. The first time we saw the hands-free Seder, it was a surprise,” Brown said. “It was novel and fun.”
“We were all sitting in the living room. She had trays and wine, it was just more informal,” Brown said. “She had pictures and comments. She put a very modern twist on a lot of things.”
She said she “laughed a lot” at the social and political commentaries that were included in it.
Brown said with a lot of people, using a Seder book can sometimes be confusing.
In traditional Seders, she said sometimes, Hagaddas can be “a little more stuffy, especially the older ones. This was easier, more informal. We weren’t shuffling books around.”
Brown said a hands-free Seder is much more relevant, “especially for the children.”
“Kids are so into technology now,” she said. “Seeing something on the screen catches their interest more.”
While Kessler may have changed the structure of her Seders, the holiday’s meaning is still the same, and always will be, Kessler said.
“The point of a Passover Seder is to experience — through words, food, music — the spiritual journey from slavery to freedom. As I understand it, we Jews go on that journey so that we can each see ourselves as though we personally were taken out of Egyptian slavery,” Kessler said.
“The bottom line for us is to experience a Passover Seder that leaves us and our guests with the encouragement that in every generation, each of us must see ourselves as though we personally were taken out of Egypt. And as fun and innovative as the Haggadot are, that really is the point of the Seder, right?”
Cantor Penny Kessler, left teaches a confirmation class at the United Jewish Center in Danbury in 2012. Kessler has created a hands-free Passover Seder. Families take turns reading from a PowerPoint presentation of a modern-style Haggadah, a book of the Passover holiday.