A Parent’s Guide to Passover

For children, the holiday offers eight days of teachable moments

by Susan Wyner

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Photo courtesty of BibleBeltBalabusta.com.

While my children were growing up, close family friends joined us each year for our Pesach seder. Their two sons and ours enjoyed each other’s company, we belonged to the same synagogue, and most of our family lived out of town. A perfect match! We sang our way through the haggadah, my husband taking the lead, inviting participation and readings in Hebrew and English. The readings were interspersed with songs that my children had embraced growing up, especially our family’s favorites coming from their grandmother.

One year, at the end of the seder, my friend turned to me and said, “Our kids go to the same religious school, why do your kids know so much more about Passover than ours?” When I asked what they had done before joining our seder, he didn’t respond, and I realized that their tradition had been to eat seder foods but to skip the haggadah experience. If anything could provide affirmation about the primacy of authentic family Jewish activity for continuity, this interaction said it all. When children experience Jewish traditions in the home that are embraced by the family, and when the Jewish year they get the message that what they learn in school has real application, the results can be life changing.

Everything about the holiday of Pesach, from its preparation and alterations to the house, to the seder, and through the week, provides a teachable moment. In Exodus 12:26, during the arrival of the final plague throughout Egypt, Moses instructs the Children of Israel “to make the Pascal sacrifice, and eat hastily with staff in hand and sandals on their feet.” And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses’.” The instruction comes as a result of the children’s questions of wonder – a powerful lesson about the potential in experiential learning. Four times in the Torah (in Exodus and Deuteronomy) parents are commanded to respond with gratitude for God’s intervention in Egypt by either answering the questions of their children, or providing an extraordinary experience to spark questions. These are the foundational texts for both the Mah Nishtana (the four questions) and the midrash (Talmudic story) of the four children. Who is the most important person at the seder? The child (or children) who recite the Mah Nishtana, because without those questions, there is no seder.

Every study around Jewish continuity has shown that Pesach is celebrated in some way more than any other holiday or Jewish experience. For some it is a full seder with all of the trimmings, for others it is a meal with Passover favorites. The following list of activities and ideas is intended to engage children, encourage their questions, and enhance learning before and at the seder, as well as at the end of Pesach.

One more story for the road. Like most of your children, mine attended a Jewish preschool which had an annual tradition of an interactive model seder. The children joyfully belted out the songs they loved, from “Bang-bang-bang Hold your Hammers Low” to “Frogs Here, Frogs There” and of course, “Dayenu”.

I had purchased a children’s haggadah for each of my boys to keep them engaged in our family seder. (My Very Own Haggadah by Judyth Saypol and Madeline Wikler, Kar-Ben Publishers). One morning before Pesach, I found my sons (then ages 6 and 4) with their heads together, haggadot on their laps, and pencil and paper in hand. They turned to me and asked if they could lead the second seder that year. And so they did – from beginning to end, giving out parts and readings, and keeping their favorites for themselves. It was the most memorable seder we could have imagined, and from that Pesach onward, became a Wyner family tradition.

As they made their way through the congregational school, new prayers and information were added. Our oldest son is now a father and eagerly invites us to his Pesach seder which he leads with mastery and grace. Continuity in action – a wonderful combination of authentic learning and the inspiration from insightful, interactive teachers leading to engagement and retention.

Whether your children or grandchildren are still in preschool, or are learning in a day school or congregational setting, as parents and grandparents, the more we empower them to bring their knowledge, questions, ideas, and interests to our seder tables, the more insightful the experience will be, not just for them, but for all who are at the seder.

So Much more than counting frogs

18 Ways to involve children and family members in the Pesach experience

  1. A few weeks before Pesach, take the family to your local ceramics center to create individual and permanent seder plates and ceremonial cups for Elijah or Miriam that will have personal meaning. Help your children search on line to design templates they can use.
  2. At a fabric or craft center, purchase muslin and fabric markers to create individualized matzah covers and afikoman sleeves. They can be edged on a sewing machine or by using iron-on fusible tape such as Stitch Witchery.
  3. Mitzvah chores – Whether you need their assistance or not, involve your children in Pesach planning and preparation.
  4. Create a hametz checklist for a pre-Pesach clean-out of their rooms and bookbags.
  5. Put different tasks on popsicle sticks in a can or jar, so every family member can pull out an assignment.
  6. Plan menus together
  7. Divvy up the shopping list and assign children to select specific items.
  8. Seder planning – An idea that can grow as your children get older – let them plan either a portion of the seder or the entire second seder. Invite them to teach the songs from their preschool, the tunes from their holiday studies in school, or an activity they have prepared on their own.
  9. Bring Pesach customs from around the world. The Jews of Afghanistan create gentle “whips” out of scallions as a reminder of the years of Egyptian slavery. The Jews of Turkey put on a small play, including costumes, to tell the story of the Exodus. The Jews of Egypt tie a piece of matzah in a napkin to look like a sack, passing it around the table. Each person puts it on their right shoulder, and is asked, “Where are you from?” Response: “Egypt.” New question, “Where are you going?” The sack switches to the left shoulder, with the response, “Jerusalem.” Some families add, “What are you bringing with you?” inviting a creative response. The Jews of Gibraltar crush pieces of brick into the charoset to remember the mortar of Egyptian slavery, but we don’t recommend that for consumption. Find other customs from around the world that can be discussed at the table.
  10. Provide a variety of haggadot, and invite participants to discover something interesting from their haggadah to share.
  11. Charoset experts – Using glass enclosed childsafe choppers get the younger set to make the charoset. Even more fun, experiment with a variety of charoset recipes.
  12. Make the seder experience engaging – A karpas dish with a variety of vegetables from the ground can provide healthy and continuous tasting to keep away the hunger pangs. In addition to parsley, add celery, cucumber, carrots, potato, green beans, asparagus, peppers and more. Keep it colorful, too!
  13. Bedikat hametz – Turn the final search for hametz into a scavenger hunt. Put small pieces of bread in closed baggies around the house, and write clues to guide the search. Be creative about where you have hidden the baggies, but keep a list so you do not miss any in the process!
  14. Don’t forget to make donations to food centers of some of the hametz not eaten as a reminder of our obligation to feed those who are hungry.
  15. Encourage kids to search for the “P” for Pesach on boxes and packages.
  16. Miriam’s Cup and/or Elijah’s Cup – Put these cups on the table empty. At appropriate times, pass them around, and as every person pours from their own cups (water for Miriam, wine or grape juice for Elijah) into the empty vessel, they provide a wish or thought for a peaceful future. Not familiar with the Miriam’s Cup? Learn more at www.miriamscup.com.
  17. Make it tasty by providing a variety of dips beyond salt water. It’s easy enough to make Pesach salsa and guacamole. But remember, dip twice!
  18. At the end of Pesach – Experiencing Pesach includes going back to the way things were before the holiday began. Children can be as helpful putting the house back together as they were in the preparations. Puzzle pieceshaped signs with pictures indicating where things go can make the task more fun. Sorting items by what is and is not appropriate for Pesach can be engaging for younger children as well.

Susan Wyner is the Director of Learning Enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. USCJ’s Early Childhood Education Consultant Maxine Handelman also contributed to this article.