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UT students learn to create their own Passover rituals

Pierre Bertrand

When it comes to Passover Seders, there are many ways in which the Jewish holiday, which begins Monday night, can be celebrated.

Jews might revert to their family traditions, or they might create their own version of the 2,000-year-old ceremony, which celebrates when Jews led by Moses left Egypt and went from slavery to freedom. But what do you do when you're in college and faced with your first Passover Seder, one of the most holy observances in Judaism, without your family or loved ones?

That's where Devora Brustin steps in. A Jewish educator for the past 21 years, Brustin leads a project as part of the Texas Hillel Center to get a select group of interns to create their own Seders. The interns are all part of the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, a nationwide program designed to get young Jews engaged in their communities and reconnecting with their faith. The initiative has been in place at the Texas Hillel Center for three years. Brustin also teaches a cooking class, JSNACK, for Hillel.

The campus initiative is designed to get Jewish students to seek Jews on the periphery and get them involved with the Jewish community. It's not religious conversion, just a way for Jews to reconnect, Brustin said.

Because many Jews do not practice Judaism in the same way, the initiative helps bridge the gap.

"I feel everybody gets to choose how they will engage Jewishly," Brustin said.

The roughly 10 interns have the following mission: Plan a Seder that will be personally meaningful to them and their friends, and any others to whom they would like to extend an invitation.

Their personalized Seders, during which the students are encouraged to discuss contemporary social conflicts, including modern slavery, help draw parallels to their past. But Brustin said this also is a way for young Jews to take their faith into their hands and choose how they want to celebrate.

"This is a time to explore and question, 'What is true for me?' " Brustin said. "When (Jews) haven't taken account of their Jewish identity, they take the Haggadah (the prayer book for the Seder) and read it from beginning to end. If it's meaningful for them through tradition, great, but I want to go deeper."

While the interns will be responsible for creating their own Seders, the Hillel will be preparing food for the students to take. Many Jews will do two Seders, one Monday night and one Tuesday night. Ecstatic Cuisine's general manager and director of catering, David Kogan, said his company will be preparing Seder dinners and ready-to-go meals from Hillel's kitchen. Menu options include roasted vegetables, a whole glazed side of salmon, brisket and turkey breasts along with more traditional Seder items, including matzo stuffing and charoset. This year is the first time the company also will be providing catered dinners to the general public, he said.

Between dinners being held at the center, those being organized by the students, those facilitated between the center and host families, and others organized in the Jewish fraternities around the University of Texas campus, there will be at least 10 Seders.

Though Brustin is trying to get young people connected to Jewish traditions, she admits, some people could regard her attempts at making Seders more engaging as an unintentional dilution of Jewish faith. For Brustin, however, Passover Seders are more about individuals' personal attachment to how and why they are celebrating rather than the method in which people observe Passover.

"I would rather have people find a meaningful connection than do nothing," she said.

Debbi Wolfson, a junior studying anthropology, said she was planning to have a wine and cheese party at her apartment, rather than a more conventional Seder. She said she wanted to have a simple gathering that stayed away from the lengthy service typical of more traditional Seders.

"You want to be surrounded by people," Wolfson said. "It's fun. Everyone can enjoy it. You don't have to be super-religious or even Jewish."

Last year Wolfson participated in Brustin's cooking class and wanted to stay involved.

"I love to cook and love to bake," Wolfson said. "I really wanted to build on that experience."

International nutrition junior Jackie Anderson said she will host what she calls a gratitude picnic in Hemphill Park. She said her picnic will focus on freedom and slavery, in a attempt to have her guests appreciate everything they have and recognize how free they are. She is still coming up with ideas, she said, but she is toying with the thought of having her guests blindfolded and gradually unbound to symbolize their progressive spiritual awakening as well as instigate an appreciation for spring, rebirth and renewal.

"I really wanted to put in mind that we are so lucky," Anderson said.

For Anderson, being a part of this initiative is a way to bring disconnected Jews closer to their community. She was herself uninvested in Judaism until, prompted by her own interest, Hillel members reached out to her; now she wants to do the same for others.

"I think people think Judaism is all about religion," Anderson said. "It doesn't matter what you believe. It's your own Jewish journey."