By Dara Kahn
“Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish/ You're never alone when you say you're a Jew/ So when you're not home and you're somewhere kind of 'newish'/ The odds are--don't look far, 'cause they're Jewish, too.”—song lyrics by Rabbi Larry Milder, of Westborough, Mass.
While Milder’s verse may be something of an overstatement, it is true that in most corners of small-town America, any Jew can find a welcome mat for a Passover Seder. Of course, obtaining the necessary ingredients for the Seder table can be a challenge. While local groceries may carry basics such as matzah and gefilte fish, many of these communities compile a list of other items to order for Passover. Sometimes, it takes a drive to the nearest large city to buy what’s needed. Or Passover products are shipped in from across the country or from Israel.
Rabbi Gordon Fuller of Congregation Agudath Jacob in Waco, Texas, has convinced local grocery chain H-E-B to carry certain kosher-for-Passover products and some kosher meat. For everything else, the rabbi and community members drive two hours to Austin or Dallas. Since 2004, he has kashered the synagogue’s kitchen in preparation for the community Seder that draws about 60 participants. His wife, Sharon, and volunteers cook the food.
“There’s a lot of respect for religion [here]. It’s not unusual to see people hold hands and pray in a public restaurant. I hadn’t seen it anywhere else,” said Fuller, who is originally from Detroit and lived in Dallas for many years. “While I never would have imagined myself in a place like Waco, [my wife and I] really like it here. There’s something nice about being in a smaller community.”
Many of these communities contain the only Jewish presence for miles. In Pocatello, home to Idaho State University, non-denominational Temple Emanuel is the lone Jewish institution in the eastern part of the state. There are maybe 100 Jews in the area, and only 15 to 20 regularly attend synagogue. “[But] during Passover when we have our community Seder, it’s a full house at the synagogue,” said Debra Shein, who leads the service.
The Pocatello community always holds its Seder on the Saturday that falls during Passover, the most convenient time, especially for those from outlying areas. For nearly 15 years, it has been catered, with salmon pate substituting for gefilte fish.
In Woodstock, Vt., only 40 of the town’s 3,000 residents are Jewish, though the synagogue’s mailing roster includes 400 people from all over central Vermont.
“I’ve lived in Woodstock most of my life, and when I first moved here you could not have put a minyan together. That’s how much things have changed…it’s pretty amazing,” said Jeff Kahn, the current president of Congregation Shir Shalom, the only reform temple in central Vermont. Because everything is volunteer-run and funded by donations, members do not pay dues. In the late 1990s, the community bought a farmhouse built around 1850. They tore it down and in its place built a sanctuary mimicking the original barn, where they now hold the annual community Seder.
“It’s always been a really wonderful experience. People love to have home Seders but this one feels like home,” Kahn said. The potluck banquet table stretches down a long hallway that connects the sanctuary and a farmhouse, where the religious school meets.
“Potluck is kind of our way of doing things in general. Sharing the [Passover] story with the community is such an important part of the fabric of being Jewish—doing the whole Seder, reading about the passage of our people to their home and the whole message it brings. [Our community Seder] feels like a much bigger home celebration,” Kahn said. In some cases, congregants drive 30 minutes to an hour or more for Passover and other services.
In all of these places, dedicated volunteers keep the Seders going. As Fuller said, “Because we’re so small we depend on each other to have that community.”