Energetic clapping, some modest dancing, and lots of toe tapping filled the room. And smiles all around.
Far from a concert, the occasion was an early Passover seder for about 125 elderly residents of this storied neighborhood, many of them too frail or without family or resources – or any combination of these – to mark properly the Jewish holiday of freedom. Or any holiday for that matter.
So if they arrived on their own two feet, or in a wheelchair, or on a walker, or steadied by the elbow of a companion, everyone set forth with the same purpose: to mark their freedoms and liberations from often not-too-pleasant pasts. And, to gather with a community of Jews to read portions of the Haggadah, enjoy a traditional meal, be in the company of others, celebrate, and of course reflect.
“Passover is the most important Jewish holiday because it means we come and together celebrate our freedom – the most important thing in the world,” said Judith Patocs, 80, who came to America from Hungary more than four decades ago, but without the family that perished in the Holocaust. “I feel together like with family every year at this seder. This is how I mark Passover.”
It is an annual affair, this special seder organized by Project Ezra, an independent, non-profit grass-roots organization serving hundreds of frail elderly Lower East Side residents – those who may be economically, physically or psychologically marginalized.
In addition to the seder itself, Project Ezra sends scores of volunteers throughout the neighborhood a few days before Passover to deliver food packages to elderly Jews who can’t provide holiday provisions for themselves.
“Longevity doesn’t always mean quality of life,” said Misha Gabriel Avramoff, a co-director of Project Ezra and recipient of a Covenant Foundation Award honoring his work and commitment to Jewish community and education.
“Many of them are too frail to go to Great Neck, or anywhere, to be with family. Many of them have no family to go to. They don’t have the dollars to do anything. So many of them are just isolated. For most of them, this is the only seder they will have. We’re giving them a feeling of belonging and hope.”
From small seder plates to an abridged Haggadah, from the chicken entrée to the chocolate macaroons, and from the feeling of inclusiveness to that of Jewish community, the specialness of the event was lost on no one within shouting distance of this gathering.
This included 35 students from the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, who traveled to Manhattan to serve food, sing, and lead the seder, as students from the school have for the last decade. But most importantly, they came to spend time with elderly Jews, many of whom took a less direct and historically fraught path to this particular moment in time.
“These seniors could be our grandparents or our great-grandparents,” said 17-year-old Michael Hurtes, a senior at the Academy, as he greeted some of them. “They don’t have an opportunity to spend Passover with family, to feel loved as part of a family. But they deserve that and that’s why we are here.”
The seder’s cross-generational thread was more like a steel rod, as connections were made between seniors of the high school sort, and those of a certain age. Two who bonded over their meal vowed to stay in touch through e-mail, while others exchanged phone numbers and addresses.
Officials of Project Ezra and the Hebrew Academy said that for students, the trip from Long Island to Manhattan put a human texture to lessons learned in text.
“For these wonderful students, this experience just intensifies what they are taught about a core Jewish value – that we as a community are responsible for each other,” Avramoff said. “This is very real.”
Back at the front door at seder’s conclusion, student Hurtes acted the good host wishing guests well and a good trip home. He identified a tangible measure of the day’s immense value.
“No matter how old, or in what condition they are in, they have big smiles on their faces,” he said. “They are really happy to have been here. And that is all that matters.”
For more information on Project Ezra, visit www.projectezra.org
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation