Jewish population observes Passover, celebrates with Seder plates, events

Illustration of a seder plate
J Frank / The Mossy Log

Passover, a major Jewish holiday, was celebrated this year from sundown on April 5 to nightfall on April 13. Across campus, people gathered to celebrate, with events as diverse as the Jewish community taking part.

Passover begins on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month, Nissan, but the dates of the holiday shift on the Gregorian calendar. The Hebrew calendar includes a leap month every few years to keep holidays in the appropriate season, so Passover always falls in the spring.

Passover is a holiday rich in symbolism and significance in Judaism. Associate Professor of Anthropology Oren Kosansky explained the purpose of the holiday.

“Passover is a Jewish holiday that for many, certainly American Jews, is centered around a couple of meals called a Seder,” Kosansky said. “It’s the commemoration of the Israelites’ freedom from slavery as told in the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible. It’s one of the major festivals in the Jewish calendar.”

Rabbi Eli Citron of Chabad on Campus SW Portland, colloquially known as Jewish & Clark, said that symbolism is rich in the Seder dinner. The dinner is typically held on the first night of Passover in Israel and on the first two nights everywhere else.

“(The Seder) is meant to enable us to relive the slavery and freedom,” Rabbi Citron said via direct message. “This includes eating bitter herbs to experience the bitterness of the enslavement, eating Matzah, a flatbread, to remind us that we left Egypt so quickly that our bread did not have time to rise, and drinking 4 cups of wine to celebrate our newfound freedom.”

Lewis & Clark’s Chabad, which serves LC and the greater area, is new to LC this year. Chabad is a global organization of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism with synagogues, campus groups and other programs working to spread the movement to Jews around the world. The new LC chapter of Chabad on Campus has quickly found a secure place in the community. Around 40 students attended Chabad’s Passover events, with more attending their Shabbat dinners and other holiday programming. 

“This community building has been student-led,” Rabbi Citron said. “When students come over and have a positive experience, they tell their friends about it. So much of the community has been built just by word of mouth.”

Celebrations of the holiday commenced throughout the LC Jewish community, taking different forms for different people. 

The largest on-campus celebration was a Seder thrown by PDX Hillel, the Portland chapter of Hillel International that serves LC, Portland State University and other campuses in the area. 

Hillel’s seder had around 80 people in attendance with a crowd of LC students, professors and some students from nearby colleges.

Maddie Herrup works at PDX Hillel as the Social Justice Fellow and at LC Hillel as the Jewish Student Life Coordinator. She played an important role in the organization of the Seder, but emphasized the agency of Hillel’s student leadership. The Seder was led by the student board, using a Haggadah, the religious text that guides the ceremony. Rather than using a more traditional version of the text, Hillel used an alternative version that student board members Sam Personette ’24 and Elliot Negrin ’25 adapted themselves. Herrup explained that this format is the standard at LC Hillel.

“It’s student-driven and staff-supported,” Herrup said. “I’m going along with whatever the students want to do … It’s almost a dance between the student board and me as this Jewish Student Life Coordinator.”

Zach Gilburne ’23 is the president of the student board. Gilburne helped organize the Seder, where he and the rest of the student board lead attendees in the reading of the Haggadah, as well as a skit version of the Passover story. He was impressed with the turnout the event drew.

“There’s not a whole lot of other events at Lewis and Clark where you can get 80 people in one room just to celebrate a holiday,” Gilburne said.

Gilburne has been involved with LC Hillel since the beginning of his freshman year, when his cousin, a fellow LC student, encouraged him to attend a Shabbat dinner during orientation. He expressed his appreciation for the open and welcoming space that Hillel provided him, and which it continues to offer to a diverse group of students.

“As far as levels of practice goes, there’s a pretty huge variety … the one pretty universal thing is community,” Gilburne said. “We get the whole spectrum of levels of observance. In some ways, it’s kind of a big melting pot of Judaism … There’s no pre-requisite on ‘Oh, you have to have lived a Jewish life beforehand.’”

Herrup also described the diversity of Hillel’s participation, which she said can be a challenge to cater to, sometimes leading to critique of the organization as a whole.

“It’s either we’re not religious enough or we’re too religious,” Herrup said. “I think it’s important to have nuance whatever perspective you come into, and people don’t see Hillel as having that,” she said.

This challenge, however, is anything but discouraging. 

“(Orthodox and conservative) perspectives are important in Hillel, along with Reform, Recon, Renewal, Spiritual, Agnostic, Atheist, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Even folks who aren’t Jewish … It’s for anybody,” Herrup said.

Herrup’s perspective lends itself to her overall goal as a Hillel staff member, which is caring for the mental and emotional health of any LC students who seek out Hillel’s services.

“The personal connections I have with the different students I’ve talked to is really important to me,” Herrup said. “That in person, ‘Let me treat you to coffee, I want to hear all about your life;’ it gives the chance to get to know someone on a person level, not just a staff to student, but human to human.” 

Linoy Yechieli, PDX Hillel Israel Fellow, has found a lot of admiration for Jewish life at LC, as compared to Israel, where she lived prior to moving to Portland.

“I feel like it’s so unique here to be Jewish… It’s a bigger deal than being Jewish in Israel,” Yechieli said. “I really feel proud.”

Like Herrup, Citron seeks to make Chabad a space for those across the broad spectrum of Judaism.

“We accept every Jew,” The Chabad on Campus SW Portland website said, “Whether you’re religious or not affiliated at all, whether you eat a bagel with lox every day, or have never heard of pastrami on rye, we’re here for you.”

This value is not just held by Citron, but is ingrained in Chabad as a whole organization.

“Chabad philosophy places tremendous emphasis on the commandment to ‘love your fellow as yourself,’” Citron said. “Jewish unity and love for one another is seen as the core of Judaism and our purpose in life.”

Professor Kosansky chose to celebrate with his out-of-town family, a serious decision for a holiday that is not granted a designated break by the college.

“I’m canceling classes for the rest of this week,” Kosansky said. “It continues to be this reasonable disjuncture between my calendar and the calendar of the college.”

He stresses, however, that the college has not stood in the way of this choice.

“I feel entirely supported by the college and I don’t feel … like I’m playing hooky, or that I’m doing anything wrong,” he said.

This semester, Kosansky is teaching a course called Ethnography of Jews and Judaism, and despite having taught Anthropology for two decades, this is his first time teaching about Judaism. 

“There are lots of reasons for that, mostly having to do with me,” Kosansky said. “The fact that there’s a more public presence on Jewish life was one factor … in saying, ‘It’s really time to do this.’”

In his time at LC, Kosansky has observed significant changes in Jewish presence on campus.

“When I came here, which is almost 20 years ago, now, the Jewish presence public press on campus was virtually nothing,” Kosansky said. “I think the college has actually, and this is largely at the behest of students, but a variety of other things, made more of a space for supporting public Jewish life on campus.”

Juno Pechersky ’26 is a student in Kosansky’s course, and describes his Jewish life at LC as social and community-based, rather than focused on religious practice. Pechersky, like many LC students, chose not to participate in an organized Seder and rather have his own, informal gathering with his friends.

“Just get all the Jews together, make some matzah ball soup,” Pechersky said of his plans for the holiday.

This, for Pechersky, fulfills the most important aspects of the celebration.

“I always enjoy feeling some sort of like being a part of something,” Pechersky said. “I think that anytime that you can get together with other Jews is a time to celebrate, and it’s nice to be around your people.” 

Rebbitzen Chaya Citron, Rabbi Citron’s wife and co-host of Chabad, said her favorite part of the holiday was spending relaxed time off of work and school with family. Herrup and Kosansky both cited the intergenerational aspect of the gathering as particularly dear to them. Leah, the Citron’s one-year-old daughter, says her favorite part of Passover is matzah.

Across the spectrum of religiosity, people seemed to agree that time with loved ones is at the core of Passover’s importance.

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