Lately, Diana Friedman has been doing enough matchmaking to land a role in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But the Congregation Beth Am board member hasn’t been playing cupid. Instead, she’s matching up people in search of a Passover seder with host families happy to welcome the stranger.
This is year two for the seder-matching program at the Los Altos Hills congregation, which last year found seders for 65 people. Friedman hosted a family at her own seder, an experience she enjoyed so much, she’s signing up for another go-round.
“It’s really fun,” she says. “I enjoy working with people and helping them connect. We’re a big synagogue, but it doesn’t feel that way because of things like this.”
Beth Am’s seder matching program isn’t the only one in the Bay Area.
Over at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Adult Program Manager Jane-Rachel Schonbrun has been playing Passover shadchan (Yiddish for matchmaker) with local Jewish institutions such as the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Peninsula congregations such as Kol Emeth and Etz Chayim.
“It seemed like a service to the community that wasn’t otherwise being provided,” Schonbrun says. “We thought we could offer something to unaffiliated people and to the synagogues to help them with their process.”
She begins by sending a questionnaire to prospective guests and hosts, finding out about food preferences, whether children would be welcome, whether guests prefer a creative or more traditional seder.
“People understand the priority of hospitality at Passover, and the Jewish value of that,” Schonbrun adds. “I’ve had some say they would love to host someone new to the area, or a businessman from out of town.”
Ruthann Richter is neither. She and her husband, Jay, have lived in Palo Alto for 30 years, and normally host a seder at their home. But last year, when several invited guests dropped out, the family found itself sederless.
Richter received an e-mail from the JCC about the seder matching program, and decided to take them up on it. So she, her husband and their teenage daughter ended up matched with a huge kid-friendly seder with about 50 people attending.
“They were so welcoming and embracing,” Richter recalls, “and we very much felt at home. Everybody brought something, we brought something. There were vast quantities of food.”
At Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, member Ruth Auerbach welcomed to her family seder last year three people in the process of converting to Judaism at the synagogue.
“Because we had people who weren’t as familiar with the traditions, we took more time to explain what was going on,” Auerbach says. “I think it’s really important since one of the big themes is ‘Let all who are hungry come and celebrate Passover with us.’ This was a way of explaining to my sons that it’s not just words, but we really mean it.”
One of her guests, Amber Wright, loved Passover at the Auerbach home, though it was not her first seder. Raised in a Pentecostal home, Wright remembers her missionary parents having Christian Passover seders in her home during her childhood.
In recent years she found herself drawn to Judaism, and began taking conversion classes at Sherith Israel. Last year she took up Auerbach’s invitation to attend the first-night seder.
“A lot of it was going through the ritual and why we do this or that,” Wright recalls. “They made us feel real welcomed. Food can do some really great things to bring people together. That’s one thing culturally a lot of people share, and that’s what makes things all the more inviting.”
Beth Am’s Friedman took in a family last year whose plans fell through at the last minute. “They had two young girls, and I have teenagers. We had the nicest time. They were delightful people. I never would have met this family otherwise.”
Richter won’t need the matching program this year. She and her family will join friends for a first-night seder April 8. But if next year is not in Jerusalem, it might be in her home for some wayfaring Jewish family.
“If we have a seder at our home I would definitely volunteer,” she says. “I would want to return the favor.”
Seder matching programs information in the South Bay: Jane-Rachel Schonbrun at the Oshman Family JCC, (650) 852-3502; or Diana Friedman at Congregation Beth Am, (650) 965-2265. In the North Bay: Moji Javid at Congregation Rodef Sholom, (415) 479-3441. Or call your local JCC or synagogue.