Jordan David Soffer
I know this is long, but hopefully it is worth it. This is the story of my loneliest seder and how it changed my life forever.
We were somewhere between Mauritius and South Africa, likely hugging Madagascar’s coastline. Half of the journey had already passed, but half was yet unrealized. Mexico, Hawaii and South East Asia quickly became distant memories. Africa, South America and a return home were around the corner.
It was my junior year of college and I was on Semester at Sea. 4 of the greatest months of my life, spent circumnavigating the globe with some of the greatest and most interesting people I had ever met. The stories from that semester are endless; the memories are overwhelming; the friendships are lifelong.
But, throughout the trip there was one lingering fear: Passover. I could make accommodations for shabbos. I could keep kosher by living on peanut butter and jelly (hardly an accommodation; closer to a dream!). But Pesach was a different animal.
We were at sea for the first two days of yuntiv, and then in South Africa for the remainder. Before we left I made sure the ship had wine and matza, I packed my own haggada, and I made arraignments with the Chabad in Cape Town for the remaining days.
Seder? I’d figure it out. And it was amazing. 300 people, predominantly not Jewish, showed up. The 4 or 5 Jewishly involved students led it together, under the guidance of Mike, our awe-inspiring Lutheran chaplain/ professor of the year at Virginia Tech. The experience was wild and incredible. We sang a few songs, and heard a few stories. The chef brought out freshly baked rolls, breaded chicken, and a nice holiday ham (ok, I’ll be honest, I have no clue what food was actually served, but it was very trief).
300 people, and I felt completely alone.
After it ended, I returned to my 150 sq foot room, and sat in my twin bed with a bottle of grape juice, a piece of romaine lettuce, and 3 matzas. I read through the hagada quickly, to myself. I drank the wine and ate the matza, and went to bed, hungry and lonely.
The next morning I woke up and went to a small private deck that I frequented to daven. I wrapped myself in my tallis, looked out at the ocean, and for the first time in the entire trip felt sea sick. Here I was, completely lost in the middle of the Mozambique Channel. I missed my family and my home. I missed my seder. I missed my traditions. I missed my faith. For the first time, I just wanted to go home.
Perhaps it was at that very moment that religiousness became my own, and not just a habit from my childhood. Perhaps it was then that I realized how much I needed my people. Perhaps it was this experience that made me dedicate my life to helping others realize how fulfilling religion can be.
Recently, rabbis and community leaders have been posting about accommodations to avoid a lonely seder. And, to be 100% clear, if the loneliness will cause you or someone you know any semblance of risk you have an obligation to take advantage of these accommodations. But, if you don’t, and if a lonely seder seems more disappointing than tragic, I implore you: take advantage instead of this one lonely seder. It can change your life forever.