Passover | How to engage younger generations in the seder Digitally, of course

An appreciation for classics and architecture does not necessarily foster interest in the seder.

However, those interests are what led Michael Hebb, a former Portland, Oregon restaurateur and the founder of meal-related projects such as Death Over Dinner and Drugs Over Dinner, to adapt Passover to the digital age.

Hebb’s latest project, Seder2015.org, is a multimedia Passover resource. It contains recipes from well-known cooks, such as “Top Chef” contestant Spike Mendelsohn; recorded anecdotes about the holiday meant to play at the seder table, such as one by Susannah Heschel on the night Martin Luther King Jr. came to her seder; holiday-appropriate playlists compiled by Jewish indie musicians; and more. The site also has partnered with Haggadot.com, an online repository of community-generated haggadah materials, to provide further digital resources.

Participants at a “test” seder use resources from Seder2015.org. photo/jta-scott macklin

This initial year is a bit of an experiment, and Hebb says that the site’s various media libraries will expand after this spring and for years to come. The goal is to inspire young Jews and non-Jews alike to take part in the unique millennia-old dinner ritual that Hebb says offers almost unparalleled opportunity to foster meaningful discussion. He imagines younger seder attendees playing the Heschel anecdote on their smartphones or streaming the Passover playlists on Spotify.

“The millennials and Gen Y and the generations that are to come tell their stories on their digital devices,” Hebb said. “And the fact is, if you go online to look for resources for Passover, you’re going to be pretty disappointed.”

Hebb, 39, is an unofficial expert on the dinner table. After studying architecture at Portland State University and classics at nearby Reed College, Hebb started the firm Communitexture at age 21 with fellow architect Mark Lakeman. Together, they created the City Repair Project, which brought Portlanders together in public places that Hebb and Lakeman converted into teahouses and other gathering spaces.

As Hebb explained, some of their more daring ideas — such as drawing concentric circles on the streets of Portland and hosting discussions there — got them in trouble with “a lot of angry bureaucrats.”

It was around this time that Hebb began hosting his own seders and “working with a wide array of Portland artists and musicians to create experimental haggadot.”

“My interest in the Greek symposium and the seder and architecture all came together,” he said.

Nearly two decades later, after stints owning several chic restaurants in Portland, Hebb started Death Over Dinner, a project that provides guidelines to help users hold discussions about mortality with family and friends at the dinner table. The idea struck a chord, and since 2013 tens of thousands of people have reportedly attended dinners planned with Hebb’s resources. It inspired Hebb to create Drugs Over Dinner, which helps people host candid discussions about drug abuse.

However, taking on the Passover seder remained an epic and tempting feat. When talking about Death Over Dinner and Drugs Over Dinner, “in some ways those projects are secretly seders,” Hebb said.

“We can talk about the importance of the Greek symposium, and yet it hasn’t existed since the classical period. It was defined by a very small period of history. And then you look at the seder and how it has helped keep a community of faith together for millennia — it’s pretty remarkable.”

That doesn’t mean that the seder is invincible. In fact, Hebb worries that declining seder attendance among young Jews, which a 2013 Pew study documented, will continue or even worsen if Jews don’t experiment with ways to engage young people.

“If we don’t start creating meaningful reasons for them to be at that table, then they’re not going to show up,” he said.