People across Canada and the U.S. will come together tonight for seder, the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the Passover holiday. For more than 1,500 of them, tonight will be their very first time doing so.
That’s thanks to Marnie Fienberg, founder of “2 For Seder,” a program that encourages Jewish households to invite at least two non-Jewish guests to the meal.
Marnie’s mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, was one of the victims of the shooting at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue on October 27, 2018. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, claiming the lives of 11 worshippers.
Joyce’s father was Canadian. She grew up in Toronto and was married at the Holy Blossom Temple, where her confirmation photo still hangs on its wall of honour.
Joyce spent most of her career as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, and was an active member of the Tree of Life synagogue. On the day of the shooting, she was serving as a greeter at the synagogue’s entrance.
Founded in memory of Joyce, “2 For Seder” was inspired by the seders Joyce hosted her entire life. Bustling events attended by Jews and non-Jews, friends new and old, they included students, co-workers and other acquaintances that Joyce and her husband met during their many travels across the world. Guests of every ethnic, racial and religious stripe would debate larger questions about religion, politics, centuries-old conflicts and fears around hatred over a hearty meal.
At last count, “2 For Seder” has helped facilitate more than 900 seders across Canada and the U.S. To ease the integration of non-Jews into the ritual, every family who signs up for “2 For Seder” receives a welcome kit that includes an introduction to the tradition, recipes and information on the history of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Canada.
For Marnie Fienberg, her family’s Canadian connection was an essential part of the project.
“There was no way that I would do this without Canada,” she told HuffPost Canada. “We have family there, and we hear about the anti-Semitic events they are experiencing as well. Our two countries have different history, but the desire to make the future better is the same.”
Marnie is aware that it will take more than a good meal to correct the current wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric or prevent the next hateful tragedy. But she’s optimistic about the ability of community and conversation to create empathy and understanding.
“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,” Marnie told The Washington Post. “That’s how good ideas spread and grow.”
Next year, she hopes to expand the idea into a massive database so non-Jewish people can find nearby seders to attend, even if they don’t know any Jewish families personally.
This year Marnie opted out of hosting; it was too painful to put on the seder without her mother-in-law. She will be relaxing with family in Chicago as people across North America enjoy their first seder tonight — all in memory of a woman who was more comfortable behind-the-scenes than being the centre of attention.
“Joyce was a very shy person,” Marnie said with a laugh. “But the rabbi who helped put together the welcome kits helped me realize that there will be thousands of people thinking about the 11 [victims of the shooting] tonight. Keeping their spirit alive. And that’s something Joyce would’ve liked a lot.”