This story was originally published on March 24, 2021. It has been updated.
Passovers at my neighbor Ms. Julie's house wasn't exactly what one would call "conventional." My memories of this night are filled with images of colorful plastic frogs that were scattered across the table (an homage to one of the seven plagues). We never followed the Haggadah, or Jewish Prayer Book, used on the night of Passover, quite right. Often we'd do the "speed version" of hitting the Passover highlights, such as reciting the famous questions, and singing the Had Gadya. At some point during the night, someone would remember that we were supposed to let Elijah in (the Old Testament prophet who you symbolically open the door for to allow him to join your Seder).
After hitting the Passover bullet points, someone would eventually chime, "Let's eat!" We would all line up buffet style for the tender brisket, warm Matzah Ball soup and Kugel that would be enticingly laid out across the kitchen counter.
However, what made these nights perhaps the most unique, and even more special to me, was the fact that all were welcome.
Although Passover is considered a Jewish Holiday, my neighbor, Ms. Julie, opened her doors to all (and not just the aforementioned prophet Elijah). All of us at the Seder, including Jews and non-Jews, read a passage from the prayer book. This process of reading aloud from the book holds a lot of symbolism: We as individuals came from different backgrounds, and we as individuals read aloud when it was our turn. When one person read, others followed along and listened. However, at other points during the night, we recited together as a group and all of our different voices merged into one. In this sense, we were all being acknowledged as individuals, but ultimately, acting as a group.
This is what I found meaningful about these Seders—the beauty between being accepted as who we were when we spoke alone, and the unity that came about from all of us sharing a table together. To me, that's what Judaism is all about: taking pride in your uniqueness while also welcoming others with open arms.
These Seders prompted me to consider why it is that we so badly want to be included. As humans, it's no secret that we crave belonging. However, it may be surprising that this desire for inclusion is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history. According to an article published in the Royal Society Publishing, the need to belong has deep roots in social psychology.
In fact, the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow ranked love and belonging in the middle of his hierarchy of needs. Humans function better when we are included for a variety of reasons. From a historical standpoint, functioning as a group is essential for survival—our caveman ancestors needed groups for purposes such as safety and gathering food (those who functioned in groups were more likely to survive than those who were isolated).
While today we don't need a group to protect us from a sharp toothed tiger like our ancestors needed, inclusion is still a pivotal part of our modern day lives. We can all relate to the feeling of exclusion—whether it be something as trivial as not being picked for a game of kickball in elementary school to something as monumental as rejection due to our race or religious beliefs, the feeling of not belonging is powerful.
I can vividly remember the times when I felt like I didn't belong, just as I can clearly recall the times when I felt like I did. And the feelings are powerful for a reason. Studies have shown that the pain we experience from social ostracism can create a neural response similar to the signal that is caused by physical pain. When we don't feel like we are achieving this sense of group life, it can have immense emotional effects. So, while feeling included at a Passover Seder at my neighbor's house is a small blip in my life narrative, I realize now why these nights were so profound. It's nice knowing that you have a seat at the table.
As a child, my fondness from these nights arose from the flourless cake and searching for the Afikomen at the end of the night. However, as an adult, I appreciate the lesson that these nights ultimately taught me: that we all want to be included, and inclusion is what matters the most.
Coming from an interfaith family myself, this message means a lot to me. As many of us who come from mixed backgrounds can relate to, I have struggled to figure out where exactly I fit in. During adolescence, a time filled with exploration and identify searching, I found myself craving for a group that felt "right." I have found that the places where I feel most like myself is where I can be myself, and furthermore, surround myself with others who can be themselves too. I always knew that I had a place of belonging at Ms. Julie's Seder, and I think that this sense of belonging stemmed from the fact that all were welcome.
I, nor any of the other guests, ever felt pressure to be one way or the other. The point of those nights was more about bringing people together than anything else. I hope that when I eventually host a Passover Seder of my own one day, that I too will have an open-door policy and make all feel included. Matzah ball soup is hard to beat, but a sense of belonging may just do it.