There’s the presidential election. There’s the coronavirus pandemic. There are massive layoffs around the country. And, on top of all of that, people will soon have to reckon with something even more stressful: family gatherings.
Yes, it’s the time of year again for the Passover seder, a tradition that often leads to political debates and heated discussions. This year will be different, with people meeting in small groups or through webcams, but proper communication is still vital. For advice, rabbis from around Greater Philadelphia chipped in on how to have a civil and productive gathering — online or off.
The most common piece of advice was this: Plan ahead. It’s important to consider who’s going to be present at the seder and how they’ll gel with everyone else.
One suggested tactic is to come up with conversation starters in advance, said Rabbi Raysh Weiss of Congregation Beth El in Yardley. By writing out prompts on notecards and stashing them on hand during the seder, it’s possible to steer away from flashpoints while creating a means to keep discussions from going stale.
For inspiration, Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown likes to refer to texts from American Jewish World Service, American Israel Public Affairs Committee and HIAS.
“Passover lends itself to talking about the plight of those who’ve been enslaved both 3,500 years ago and today and thinking about what does that mean, since the seder specifically teaches us to act as if we were born slaves in Egypt and framing it in that way. Many people can think about it differently,” Gaber said. “Be conscious of the fact that there are people who have different opinions.”
Rabbi Nesanel Cadle of Knesset Hasefer in Yardley spoke of a well-meaning question that can often lead to problems.
“Where people get into trouble, often, is they ask, ‘What does this mean to you?’” Cadle said in regard to the story of Passover. While unassuming, it can be a “loaded question” and an opportunity for guests to bring up any topic they’d like, for better or for worse.
While some suggest setting ground rules and listing topics that are off the table, Rabbi Batya Glazer, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, advocates for diving headfirst into topics. She said the Passover seder is an opportunity to practice listening and hearing other’s perspectives — all with an understanding that people don’t have to agree to get along.
“To do Passover really well, you need to really be passionate and engaged and make it personal,” Glazer said. “Not everybody’s going to have the same perspective or point of view and personalities. And when you’re talking about things you care about, things can get heated. And it’s important to remember that the person we’re talking to deserves as much respect, and their opinion deserves as much respect as your own.”
Speaking on the matter from a more scientific background is Julia Weinberg, a member of Mekor Habracha/Center City Synagogue. She has worked as a psychologist for more than 25 years. In her opinion, it’s not the topic itself that leads to confrontation, but the group assembled.
Weinberg discourages people from outright blocking topics, but added that it’s good to have ideas prepared beforehand on how to shift a conversation, just in case.
“I am a believer in preparing ahead of time,” Weinberg said. “It’s very difficult in the moment, especially if you’re a host, if people are talking and then they start to argue, it’s very difficult to think in the moment what to do about it. But if you have prepared some items that you know you can start a conversation about, that could help.”
When things do get heated, a line she likes to drop is “Well, I see the point, but reasonable minds can differ.”
“We know that people come with their biases and their opinions, and whatever’s stressing them when they come to a gathering at this time,” Weinberg said. “Instead of trying to change them or change their views, it’s healthier and more constructive to say what could we do ourselves, and what we can do ourselves is bring up a different topic.”
At the end of the day, rather than hoping that this time will be different, Rabbi Jeremy Gerber of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford said it’s better to accept people for who they are, expect the expected and to come together as a family.
“I would say that even though the stakes feel really high on our election coming up, the census, whatever it might be, the environment, the stakes feel really high,” Gerber said. “But it’s important to remember that you’re not going to solve the world crisis at our dinner table.”