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Passover 5781

Photographer Zion Ozeri showcases Jewish diversity in virtual Haggadah

By Erin Ben-Moche (Jewish Journal via JNS)

Renowned Jewish photographer Zion Ozeri’s award-winning shots have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Jerusalem Report, Moment and The Economist, to name a few publications. After reviewing his pieces, Ozeri decided to create a virtual interactive Haggadah that highlights the diversity of Jews, just in time for a second pandemic Passover.

Ozeri, along with Sara Wolkenfeld and Josh Feinberg, curated “Pictures Tell: A Passover Haggadah,” a Haggadah that is completely virtual (can be utilized at home or in a classroom) and celebrates the traditions and cultural experiences of the Jewish Diaspora. A major goal of “Pictures Tell” is using imagery to tell the story of the Jewish people, he said.

Ozeri said that each community he has visited – from Europe to Africa and Asia –  has its own history and traditions, but that “we have more in common than what separates us, within the Jewish community and beyond.” This theme is integrated into every page of the Haggadah.

Cave, Haidan A-Sham, Yemen, 1992. Photo courtesy of Zion Ozeri.

“One of the big things I’ve seen this past … two years, [is] this idea of diversity, this idea of ‘who are the Jewish people?’ Most Jews and non-Jews don’t realize that Jews are not just coming from Europe,” said Ozeri. “There are not that many Haggadot showing the diversity of the Jewish people. There is nothing better than just showing people rather than talking about it.”

Along with the traditional prayers and text and the modern photographs, readers will find short entries by contemporary Jewish thinkers – including Rabbi David Wolpe, Rachel Wahba, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Dr. Mijal Bitton, Yossi Klein Halevi and Karma Lowe, to name a few. These supplements add another perspective to the rich conversation of Jewish rituals, reflection and diversity. Ozeri also embedded links to multiple melodies of prayers not often popularized at seders to show how tunes vary at seders around the world. For those looking for separate study sheets to incorporate in classrooms–or the Passover seder itself–study links on Sefaria offer deeper exploration.

Ozeri recently launched the “DiverCity Lens” curriculum and program for public schools, as part of a partnership with the New York City Department of Education. This initiative adds to his existing Jewish Lens project, which helps students around the world conceptualize Judaism and Jewish history through photography.

Ozeri is passionate about teaching students about visual storytelling because it’s an easy way for them to relate in history and retain information. He wanted to bring the same elements into his Haggadah so young Jews were engaged throughout the seder. “It’s more engaging when you see modern photographs,” he said. “We read [the text] every year, and it can get a little dry, but with photographs, especially with kids, the imagery triggers a conversation. It’s easier with an image.”

Matzah oven, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo courtesy of Zion Ozeri.

Ozeri found that photos were compelling when used in lecturing college students. A few months ago, Ozeri was asked to speak virtually in front of a group of students studying for their master’s at Columbia University. During Ozeri’s lecture, he displayed pictures of Jews from around the world to show how diverse the Jewish people are. The response from the students not only surprised Ozeri but also inspired him to create this Haggadah for all ages and all religions.

“The responses from the Zoom [lecture chat] were amazing. Most of the comments were, ‘Oh I didn’t realize there are Black Jews and Brown Jews, Jews in Asia and India.’ I expected Jews to know about this and even they don’t.”

During the pandemic, Ozeri realized how many around the globe used their time in quarantine to learn about their family history and those similar and different to them. He said that pictures and films taken from a phone or computer made it possible to stay connected and educated in a time of isolation.

He hopes his images help others learn about the diversity of Jews and deepen conversations about the Passover story. While Ozeri plans to use this Haggadah at his virtual seder this year, he would eventually like to have a printed version so he can have it for his own children.

Whether virtual or in-person, through his curricula or individual photographs, Ozeri’s work, much like Judaism, aims to teach Jews about their history in an insightful way. These are the lessons and pictures children remember and pass down from generation to generation. It isn’t a coincidence that the cover of Ozeri’s Haggadah features a grandfather and grandson sitting together reading Torah.

“Photographs can also tell a story. It’s a language we are using more and more,” he said. “All we [want to] do [is] pass something to the next generation. … It’s about education and passing the torch. That is really one of the most important things in Judaism. This is our responsibility.”

“Pictures Tell: A Passover Haggadah” is available for free online at: https://www.tiktakti.co.il/catalog/zion_ozeri/passover-haggadah/

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

Sale of the Century

Every Passover for 40+ years, John Brown bought millions of dollars of NY’s “chametz”

By Ben Sales

(JTA) – For decades, dozens of Orthodox rabbis would gather in a New York City synagogue on the morning before Passover and, one by one, sell millions of dollars worth of bread, pasta and other leavened products to one man.

That man, a real estate agent named John J. Brown, acted as the linchpin of a Jewish legal process that is crucial to those who keep the strict laws of Passover, which forbid Jews from owning or benefitting from hametz, or any products containing leaven. Because most observant Jews don’t want to throw away all of their hametz ahead of Passover, they sell it to a non-Jewish person, who sells it back when the holiday ends.

For thousands of Jews, Brown was that non-Jewish buyer. Every year from 1977 to 2019, he bought hametz from the congregants of dozens of synagogues in and around New York City, completing the sales via the synagogues’ rabbis.

Last year, the tradition was suspended because of the pandemic. This year, someone else will have to pick it up: Brown died in February at age 88.

“It meant an awful lot to him,” said Paul Jacobs, Brown’s son-in-law, who is Jewish and would often make the trip to New York City with him. “There was an extremely high level of mutual respect. It was a business transaction and John treated it as a business transaction, so that was part of it. John had this commitment to real estate and contracts and all that.”

But Jacobs said that to Brown, it was more than just another business deal. Brown, Jacobs said, had a lot of intellectual curiosity and would pepper his speech with Latin phrases as well as Yiddishisms he picked up in New York.

“There’s an element of fun to it,” Jacobs said. “He was trying to follow the rules of the Torah and the Talmud, but there was some creativity there.”

The respect was mutual. Rabbi Gidon Shoshan, the son-in-law of Rabbi Mordechai Willig, who orchestrated the sales with Brown, wrote on Facebook that Brown “was a legend in the Willig family, in the Riverdale Jewish community, and – for those that knew his name – actually an important role player in the lives of many thousands of Jews each Pesach for decades.”

Willig and Brown met when Brown worked on the 1975 purchase of the Young Israel of Riverdale, where Willig was the rabbi. In 1977, the synagogue was looking for a new hametz buyer, and Willig thought of Brown, figuring he would understand the complex legal processes involved in the hametz sale.

Rabbi Mordechai Willig, left, executes the 2015 sale of hametz to John J. Brown, right. 
(Josh Weinberg/screenshot from YouTube)

“In Jewish law, real estate is a powerful lever for legal transactions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Hain of Young Israel Ohab Zedek of North Riverdale/Yonkers, who sold his synagogue’s hametz to Brown for more than a decade and is close with Willig. “So Rabbi Willig liked to have someone in real estate because they understand the power of real estate and the overall significance of real estate in Jewish law.”

Willig also was a leader at the Yeshiva University rabbinical school, and those he had trained also would come to sell their congregations’ hametz to Brown. The transactions would take place at around 10 a.m. on the morning before Passover, the last possible time when Jews are allowed to have hametz in their possession. Dozens of rabbis and Brown would crowd around a conference room table at the Young Israel of Riverdale while Willig read through the contract.

Afterward, Brown would pay for the hametz with bundles of coins – a few cents for each of the thousands of households whose food he was purchasing. This token sum was meant as an ostensible down payment on the goods he was buying.

Brown would then signify that he completed the transaction under Jewish law in a few other ways – by picking up and placing a pen down on the table, signing a document and shaking the rabbi’s hand. He repeated the same process with each rabbi. Eventually he became so experienced in the particulars of the Jewish practice that he began to teach newer rabbis how it was done.

“He always took an interest in them and would correct the novice rabbis who mixed up the order of the transactions, who would shake his hand before lifting up the pen,” Hain recalled.

In addition to buying the leavened products stowed away in people’s homes, Brown would symbolically purchase shares that people owned in businesses, such as hotels, that sold hametz over Passover.

Year after year, he also took temporary ownership of people’s pets: Jews are not allowed to benefit from hametz in any way, so they are not allowed even to feed it to their pets. To get around that restriction, many people sell their pets along with their hametz, so that the animals eating the forbidden food on Passover do not technically belong to them.

Even after Brown retired and moved from Riverdale to Minerva, a town far upstate in New York, he would make the nearly four-hour trip back to New York City each year to buy hametz and see his old neighborhood. In return, Willig plugged Brown’s real estate business. And rabbis who sold hametz to Brown would also give him a bottle of liquor as a gesture of goodwill.

As he was listing the kinds of leavened foods prohibited on Passover during the 2015 sale, which was filmed, Willig mentioned fermented products and said, “I would daresay, Mr. Brown, the alcohol fermentations are probably the more valuable of the items that are being sold to you.”

“Judging from the quality that I’ve seen around here, I would agree,” Brown replied.

Jacobs said that some years, Brown would return from the sale “with a box of booze.” Jacobs pointed out that though Brown’s spirit of choice was Irish whiskey, the rabbis would often buy him single-malt scotch, which he saved for his guests.

Some years, the hametz sale was only the beginning of Brown’s Passover observance. After the sale, Jacobs said, he would drive down to Jacobs’ house in Washington, D.C., where the family would have a seder meal that night.

“It is kind of funny that, as the designated goy, he still did go to seder,” Jacobs said. “John always had a lot of respect for the Jewish community and the tradition.”

Brown particularly liked the coda to the process at the end of Passover, when he would sell the hametz back to its original owners – always feigning regret at not being able to complete the original multimillion dollar sale.

“He would describe some delight in the process by which he would appear in the final ceremony and apologize that he couldn’t come up with the money for the final transaction, so he had to give it back,” Jacobs said.

Last year, due to the pandemic, Brown was unable to come to Riverdale. When Willig attempted to reach him this year, he learned of his death. He’s now looking for someone to carry on Brown’s legacy.

“He said we have to find someone together to do this going forward, and hopefully this person will outlast my tenure in Riverdale,” Hain said of Willig. “For him, this was a moment where he sees it as an end of an era.”

Digging Deep: Brief and Meaningful Insights into the Haggadah

Rabbi Shmuel Reichman

The following collection of brief and profound insights into the Haggadah is designed to help make your Seder a meaningful and transformative experience. 

Why do we announce all the steps of the Seder

Any great journey begins with a clear goal and destination. As we say every Friday evening in Lecha Dodi, “Sof ma’aseh bi’machshava techilah” – the physical result originates first within the mind. In order to accomplish anything great you must first create a clear target, and only then determine what steps you must take to get there. 

The Seder is comprised of 15 steps, which is the same number of steps leading up to the Beit Ha’Mikdash – the Holy Temple – and the same number of “Shir Hamaalos” psalms – the songs of ascension. The Seder is likewise a 15-step process of ascension, a 15-step journey towards spiritual greatness. However, one does not simply achieve spiritual greatness accidentally, it requires focus, planning, and extreme dedication. The Seder night is a journey with tremendous potential, providing an opportunity to tap into something genuinely special. On the Seder night, we attempt to experience true freedom, a fundamentally deeper connection with Hashem, true gratitude, and an understanding of our mission in this world. Only when we lay out the steps of our Pesach Seder and create a clear destination can we achieve the extraordinary.

What’s with all the questions?

A notably prominent theme of the Seder is that of asking questions. While “Mah Nishtanah” is the most obvious example, the commentators explain many features of the Seder as purely serving as an impetus for the children to ask questions. It’s not only children, though, who are enjoined to question. The Gemara in Pesachim (116a) says that if a man’s child cannot ask the questions, then his wife should, and if he has no wife, he must ask himself questions. Even if two Torah scholars are sharing their Seder together, they should ask each other. Why is questioning such an integral part of the Pesach Seder?

Asking questions is the gateway to learning. A question allows you to recognize your current limitations; to shed the illusion that you already know everything. The Gemara in Gittin (43a) says that you can only understand a Torah concept if you originally struggled with it. Only by recognizing that you don’t already know something can you break it down, analyze it, and see it in a new way, thereby building a new, deeper understanding. If you believe that you fully understand something, you simply will not allow your mind to develop a new way of seeing it. Only by realizing a lack in your understanding and perception can you develop deeper paradigms.

The Seder night serves as an opportunity to pass on our tradition and legacy to the next generation. It’s a night when we speak about emunah (faith), the meaning of being a Jew, and our purpose in this world. In order to teach these lessons to our children and ourselves in a deep and lasting way, we must encourage the Seder participants to ask questions, no matter the age or knowledge level.

Our goal and mission as the Jewish People is to grow, develop ourselves, and fulfill our potential. On the Seder night, as we focus on whom each of us can become, we ask questions – creating holes that we then yearn to fill with additional knowledge, insight, and growth.

The Ke’ara: A pathway to the spiritual

The ke’ara (Seder plate) holds many symbolic foods that we use throughout the Seder. Some of these are eaten during the course of the Seder, while others we simply look or point at. What is the meaning of these symbols? The simple answer is that we display these foods in order to engage the children, to encourage their curiosity and questions. There is a deeper idea which can be learned here as well, one that is applicable to those of all ages. The most essential principle to internalize in this world is that there is always something deeper than that which appears on the surface. Living in a physical world can compel one to forget to seek out the spirituality inherent within every object, event, and person in this world. Seder night is when we instill within ourselves the pillars of emunah – of faith – and our mission as the Jewish people. On this night, we must all learn this powerful principle. Each physical object on the ka’arah represents a world of profundity, but this is not limited to the Seder plate alone.

Why tell the story of the exodus from Egypt…over and over? 

We conclude the paragraph of “Avadim Hayinu” by proclaiming, “v’chol hamarbeh li’saper bi’yitzias Mitzrayim, harei zeh mishubach” – all those who elaborate on the Exodus from Egypt, behold, this is praiseworthy. The Rambam (Maimonides) codifies this as a legitimate halacha of Seder night. What is the importance of telling over the Pesach story at great length, and why on this night specifically?

There are two ways to interpret the statement of “v’chol hamarbeh.” The first is that one should tell over as much of the Exodus story as possible. The second is that one should delve into the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed when taking us out of Mitzrayim in as much depth as possible. 

A third way to understand this statement is that the exodus was not merely a historical event, rather it was the birth of the Jewish people – our people, you and me. The story did not end with the birth of the Jewish people, it continues with them growing into the nation they are meant to become. When the Jewish people left Egypt, we journeyed to Mount Sinai, where we were given the Torah and our mission in this world as Hashem’s chosen nation. The Haggadah says that whoever increasingly tells the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy. Jewish history is our mission and destiny, and we must continue to grow and thrive in this mission. The goal is to make yourself a part of the Jewish story.

Rabbi Reichman will discuss “Deep Ideas for Your Pesach Seder, Read to Order,” on Zoom, Tuesday, March 23, 8 p.m. For more information: (718) 285-9132, events@chazaq.org, chazaq.org.

Passover & the Pandemic: Finding strength in the story of our people

Recently, we asked several Connecticut rabbis for their thoughts on Passover in the time of COVID. Here is what two rabbis from West Hartford had to say.

Rabbi Michael Pincus
Congregation Beth Israel
West Hartford

I think it is hard to comprehend that this pandemic has lasted more than a year. Passover 2020 occurred only weeks after the first Covid shutdown. Last year we were like our ancestors fleeing Egypt with no time to prepare. We were forced to learn quickly how to live in a new reality. Like our ancestors in our story, we would end up living in an unknown wilderness far longer than we had expected. 

In some ways, it feels as if we are on the plains of Moab like our ancestors 40 years later. We can see the promised land and we can anticipate the end of our journey. Perhaps some of us can even smell hints of freedom, like the sweet fragrance of milk and honey lingering in the air. 

But we all aren’t there yet. 

And so many of us will spend one more holiday huddled around our Zoom screens or warily gathering with extended family uncertain if it is safe to lower one’s mask. 

However we celebrate Passover this year, may we have greater appreciation for our people’s strength and courage and our ancestors’ vision. 

May we be inspired by the promise of hope that this holiday of Passover is all about. 

Rabbi Tuvia Brander
Young Israel of West Hartfordd
West Hartford

Here we are again – preparing for the season of redemption amidst a lingering global pandemic! 

In so many ways, our experiences today mirror the lives of our ancestors who left Egypt over 3000 years ago. While the Exodus brought them freedom, our ancestors too were thrust into a world of uncertainty and challenges. They became a people, wanting for food and water, wandering the desert in search of the promised land, and a new nation struggling to recast its national identity after years of disrepair and slavery. 

Yet, we celebrate each year on Pesach the joy and jubilation of the beginnings of their freedom, of new hope kindled and of renewed anticipation of a brighter and better future; on Pesach, we celebrate the beginning of the journey towards freedom.

So too, today! 

We have been living through trying times (to say the least). On this Pesach, we celebrate, in these days and in our time, the beginning of the journey towards our freedom and renewal – the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Thanks to the grace of the Almighty and the miracle of modern medicine, we now have a vaccine (soon to be available to all). We have been blessed with people of remarkable courage, dedication and selflessness – first responders, medical professionals, educators, clergy, public servants and everyone else who have worked hard to keep our community going and safe! We can all be proud of all that we have done as individuals and a community to help us reach another Pesach and to provide strength and comfort to one another in during these difficult times. 

This year, let us celebrate Pesach as our ancestors did – with the taste of renewed optimism for the future in our hearts and knowing that together better days are certainly ahead!

Clearing out the notes in the Kotel ahead of Passover, under COVID-19 conditions

By Hanan Greenwood

(Israel Hayom via JNS) Workers at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem on Tuesday,March 16,  conducted the site’s customary biannual clear-out of all the notes stuck between the stones over the course of the previous six months.

The notes are traditionally collected before Passover–which this year begins on the evening of March 27–and Rosh Hashanah. Mindful of public-health regulations, workers wore gloves and masks, and used disposable wooden sticks to remove the notes. These will be buried on the Mount of Olives, along with holy materials that are deemed too worn-out for use.

Handwritten notes placed between the ancient stones of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz oversaw the ceremonial clear-out and recited a prayer for the burial of the notes.

According to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in the number of notes e-mailed to the Kotel by Jews all over the world. Since Passover 2020, more than 71,000 such notes have been e-mailed to the foundation, many times more than prior to the coronavirus crisis.

The countries from which most of the notes hailed were the United States, Brazil, France, Canada, Germany, Spain, Poland, Argentina, and Mexico, as well as the Lapland region of Finland.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation also said that it is preparing for Passover prayers, including the traditional Priestly Blessing, which normally draws tens of thousands of worshipers. Last year, only 10 kohanim (Jewish high priests) were allowed at Kotel. This year, the prayers will be held in accordance with Health Ministry directives, which, as of March 17, allow for public prayer in capsules. They will also be live-streamed for the sake of those unable to participate.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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