Can­tor cre­ates hands-free Seder

The News-Times - - NEWS - By San­dra Di­a­mond Fox

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 Hag­ 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?”

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

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.

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