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After Pittsburgh tragedy, this grieving woman thinks she can reduce anti-Semitism — with 1,500 Seder guests

Marnie Fienberg founded "2 for Seder" to honor her mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, who was killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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As Jewish tradition, participants in Passover Seders ask the question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This year, the answer for at least 1,500 people will be: Because it’s their first Seder ever.

A slate of prominent Jewish organizations are drumming up first-time attendance at Seders across the country — based on the belief that acquainting new people with the beloved Jewish Seder ritual can help reduce anti-Semitism.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy a Seder?

The program is the brainchild of Marnie Fienberg, a resident of Northern Virginia whose mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, 75, was one of 11 worshipers killed at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October, when a gunman rampaged the synagogue in an anti-Semitic attack. Devastated, Fienberg cast about after the attack for ideas. What could she do to reduce bias against Jews, which only seems to be increasing in the United States today, based on hate crime statistics?

She hit upon an answer in her memories of Joyce: the Seder.

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Joyce’s Seders were boisterous affairs, with her famous Passover popovers (think matzo balls, but baked not soupy) and an abundance of guests. Joyce, a researcher, and her husband, a statistician, loved to travel, Fienberg said; they eventually visited every continent but Antarctica. Wherever they went, they made friends, with whom Joyce kept in touch for decades after. She always had foreigners at her Seders, and her husband’s students from far away. Jewish and non-Jewish guests, friends old and new, a house full of inquisitive people debating politics and religion — all of it presided over by Joyce, who joyfully prepared for the Seder for weeks.

Seders like that, Fienberg thought, would be a meaningful introduction to Judaism for people who did not know much about the religion and might believe negative stereotypes about its followers.

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Fienberg made it her goal to get as many non-Jews to Seders as possible this year. She called her program “2 for Seder,” inviting Jewish households across North America to include at least two new non-Jewish guests at their ritual meal.

More than 730 families signed up, in 41 states and Canada. On the program’s website, Fienberg updated a daily count. As of Wednesday morning, two days before the Seder, Pennsylvania was leading with 108 Seders, with New York close behind at 94.

Fienberg says she knows it sounds idealistic, that Jews inviting their non-Jewish acquaintances to a dinner full of Hebrew blessings could ever blunt the hatred of extreme anti-Semitism. But she believes these hundreds of Seders can indeed prevent some violence.

“Conceivably, someone’s going to say something to my neighbor, something negative about Jews. Well, he’s got the data now. He can say, ‘I’ve experienced this myself. You are wrong. You need to reconsider this trash coming out of your mouth,'” Fienberg said. “I think if you have 1,000 people this year, and next year a different thousand people, over and over again, that’s how education works. That’s how good ideas spread and grow.”

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Fienberg worked for over 15 years as a consultant for the Department of Homeland Security and then for NASA, and had just finished her contract in October, when her mother-in-law went to the Pittsburgh synagogue where she proudly served as a greeter at the entrance and was murdered. Fienberg didn’t go back to work.

She has devoted herself full time to “2 for Seder,” and she has visions of making the program far bigger next year. She imagines a database for interested non-Jews to sign up to be hosted in a stranger’s home for Seder, not just Jews inviting their acquaintances.

This year, she got dozens of Jewish organizations to sign on to her idea. The Anti-Defamation League helped promote the project, as did synagogues and community centers across the country that encouraged members to participate. She loved watching as new sign-ups came in, strangers saying they would be opening their homes to non-Jewish guests in honor of a woman they never knew.

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Rabbi Evan Ravski of Fairfax’s Congregation Olam Tikvah helped Fienberg create a packet of instructional materials to send to every family who signed up for “2 for Seder.” He said Passover is the perfect holiday for introducing Judaism: a participatory, in-home activity; an emphasis on educating the young and old alike through storytelling and symbol; themes of struggle and liberation.

“The Seder is really an educational tool whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish. It’s a ritual, it’s a home ritual, that’s designed to inspire people to ask questions,” Ravski said. “The whole thing is designed to make us ask questions, and to engage in those discussions.”

This year, Ravski said, he is sure the 1,500 non-Jews participating in “2 for Seder” will hear frank discussions of anti-Semitism around the table. “We know it’s going to come up. It’s where we feel the most pain,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s a Jewish household, or there are very few Jewish households, where Pittsburgh is not still in the front of our minds.”

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At Fienberg’s home, where she co-hosted the Seder with Joyce for the past decade after Joyce stopped hosting it in Pittsburgh, she still has her great-great-grandmother’s matzo cover and Joyce’s mother’s Seder plate that they always used. But now they’re joined by other artifacts: five boxes of letters and crafts mailed by well-wishers after the murders that Fienberg still can’t bear to sort through; a quilt made for her by a Pittsburgh church that chokes her up just to talk about. “It was the softest, most beautiful quilt you ever saw. Their note said, ‘We’re wrapping you in love.’”

“I can’t even touch it,” she said. “In the end, I want Joyce to be with us. I can’t acknowledge it that way.”

Joyce’s heirloom Seder plate will also go untouched this year.

“I can’t do a Seder without Joyce. I can’t. I can’t do it. It’s too painful,” Fienberg said. She’ll be leaving town, going to relatives in Chicago for the holiday.

There, on Friday night, she’ll hear the age-old question — Mah nishtana halayla hazeh mikol haleilot? Why is this night different from all other nights? — with a haunting new answer.

Because of Joyce’s example, so painfully missing on that night, thousands of people will hear new insights in the ancient words, too.