Every year, Rabbi Alan Litwak tries to come up with a new way to tell the ancient story of Passover, which centers around Moses leading the Jews from bondage in Egypt.
He’s made his own kid-friendly prayer book with pictures. And he’s acted out scenes of the story with students as the stars.
Litwak knows that old stories sometimes need new storytellers.
So this year, the religious leader at Temple Sinai of North Dade is turning to the digital world instead of flipping the pages of the traditional Passover prayer book, known as the Haggadah.
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For this Passover, which begins at sundown Friday, Litwak rolled out his virtual version, with pictures, moving images and trivia questions for a pre-Seder with his students earlier this week. He also will use the PowerPoint Haggadah for his synagogue’s second-night Seder on Saturday.
“Haggadahs should be a reflection of who is sitting around the table,” he said to 90 fifth- through seventh-graders at the Reform synagogue’s school, 18801 NE 22nd Ave. “So what we have done is created a Haggadah for the 21st century.”
The familiar coffee-and-kugel-stained prayer books — many given out for free by Maxwell House, Publix and Winn-Dixie — will continue to be a fixture at home Seders for years to come. And the traditions of the Seder — the order of the meal, the symbolic food plate, the breaking of the matzo, the pouring of the wine — aren’t going away.
But Passover celebrations are clearly changing.
Observers are finding new ways to adapt the ancient story for modern times, including using technology and runnning Seders that take on specific themes.
One focuses on women’s issues. Another on human trafficking. Observers are customizing the service, writing their own interpretations, gathering with others to discuss new meanings of the holiday.
“People have different interpretations of the story and those can change from year to year,” said Rabbi Eliezer Wolf, who leads Beit David Highland Lakes Shul, an Orthodox synagogue in Northeast Miami-Dade. Wolf said he uses a traditional Haggadah, but the stories and conversations that come up during the Seder are different every year.
At the Women’s Passover Experience at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, more than 70 women came together last week to retell the story of Passover with a feminine focus. No men allowed.
“This shows how important women have been throughout history and how they have been marginalized by society,” said Patty Taxman Craven, who helped organize the annual event that includes dinner, wine, prayers, singing and dancing.
Pages of the custom-made Haggadah are dedicated to important women in history, including former Israeli leader Golda Meir, activist Gloria Steinem and healthcare reformer Barbara Seaman. The women who attended took turns reading from the 26-page Haggadah, which was compiled by a longtime member of Temple Israel, 85-year-old Dody Raskin.
Raskin, who shared the meal with her twin adult daughters and her granddaughter, said the service was “by women for women.”
“There are a lot of things that we have in our Haggadah that you wouldn’t find in a traditional one,” she said.
Among them: an orange on the Seder plate, which symbolizes a women’s central place and equal rights within Jewish life, a custom that developed in the early 1980s.
Joan Bornstein, who has been attending Temple Israel near downtown Miami for decades, said the sisterhood’s gathering proves “women can do it as well as men.”
“I remember the times when women didn’t have the right to do all of the things men could do,” said Bornstein, 80.
Originally, the Haggadah just outlined rituals for the Passover Seder, which translates to “order.” The meal traditionally begins with a blessing over the wine, known as kiddush. Then comes hand-washing. The steps continue until the 15th one — a final prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
The bare-bones outline left room for variation, said David Kraemer, professor and librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
“Different communities began to do it in different ways,” he said of the Seder.
Kraemer co-created his own Haggadah in an iPad app with Melcher Media, a storytelling company. The app includes the history of the Haggadah, recipes for Seder dinner, prayers, songs, illustrations and activities for kids.
But digital versions are not for everyone. The most observant Jews, plugged into technology on most days, refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath, and this year the holiday begins on Friday night.
The story of Passover is rooted in a time when Jews were slaves and craved freedom. Human trafficking, organizers say, is a form of modern-day slavery and can be related to the holiday story.
A short documentary about Theresa Flores, a survivor of child sex-trafficking, set the theme of the Passover Seder at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation last week. The customized Haggadah told the story of the slavery of minors in the modern day instead of the emancipation of Jews from slavery in Egypt.
“The Seder is the retelling how we were slaves, gained our freedom, and now we must act until all are free,” said Nancy Zaretsky, chairwoman of the Taskforce to Combat Human Trafficking.
Rabbi Fred Klein, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami and director of Mishkan Miami, a spiritual support group, began the ceremony by reminding everyone to recline, a Passover tradition. The group sipped the first glass of wine while thinking of all those in South Florida and around the world who are forced to labor in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
One by one, participants read from the Freedom Haggadah, each part dedicated to the emancipation of children from coercion and sexual exploitation.
For Rabbi Yossi Harlig, Passover symbolizes freedom and tradition. On the first night he leads a traditional Seder for the Chabad Center of Kendall & Pinecrest at a “quicker pace.”
But on the second night, he allows his children a chance to share what they have learned in school and tries to have more “age appropriate” discussions.
“The Seder is all about the birth of the Jewish nation and kids are central,” he said.
Across the county at Temple Sinai of North Dade, the children welcomed Rabbi Litwak’s digital Haggadah.
“It’s hard to flip through the pages while doing everything you have to do,” said fifth-grader Sophia Perel, 10. “This is a lot more fun.”
Sophia’s classmate Ella Caridi, 11, agreed, saying it also helps to avoid food messes — dipping the greens, eating the crumbly matzo and drinking juice while balancing a book.
“The best part of not having a Haggadah is you don’t have to worry about ripping it or getting it dirty,” she said.
Litwak said he came up with the idea after realizing that children are hooked on tech. As Litwak, dressed as Moses, led the children through the meal, the kids followed along. They sang and giggled as he showed a video on what to do with leftover matzo (use it as a coaster! a Frisbee! a picture frame!).
“I like it better because it’s new and not in a book,” said seventh-grader Alejandro Assael, 12. “It was way more interactive.”
Miami Herald writers Daniel Bock and Rebeca Piccardo contributed to this report.