The Empty Seat at Our Seder Table

The Empty Seat at Our Seder Table

This past Shabbat we hosted a lovely Jewish family from LA. 3 generations here on a bat mitzvah trip, 3 young girls, their parents, their aunt and uncle and the bat mitzvah girl’s proud grandparents.
As usual, before we got started, Josh asked if any of them had ever been to a traditional Shabbat dinner.
Blank looks. Heads shaking.
Do you belong to a synagogue in LA?
Blank looks again. Heads shaking.
“No,” the father explained, “We don’t belong to a temple. We go on the High Holidays. Maybe.”
Do you know how to read Hebrew?
Blank looks. Heads shaking.
Undeterred, we sang Shalom Alechem, Eshet Chayil, and said Kiddush. Then we took all of them into the kitchen to wash hands.
Most Jews, I’ve found, know at least the beginning of the bracha, “Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech HaOlam…” they just need help with “B’mitzvotav” etc. (several decades of experience has taught us to split it into two words “B’meetz–Votav”)
But our guests needed help from me and my 17-year-old daughter (standing at the other sink) with every single word, I said “Baruch” and my guest said “Barook.” I said “Ata” and she said “Ata.”
After our guests had returned to the table, I exulted to my daughter: “What a Shabbat HaGadol experience!! A Jew just said the first blessing of her life, or at least her first blessing in many years IN OUR HOME!! What a zechut!”
Despite the slightly awkward beginning, over chicken soup and pastrami, as usual, we bonded with our guests, talking about how Josh and I became religious and met at a Friday-night-dinner 30 years ago. And the pros and cons of judicial reform. And the bat mitzvah girl’s moving ceremony at Masada the day before.
We found out that the bat mitzvah girl’s father, a successful start-up founder, had decided a year before that instead of making a fancy party like most Jewish families he knew, he would plan a trip to bring his entire family to Israel for the first time–so they could have a meaningful encounter with their Jewishness and Israel.
I was blown away. To meet an unaffiliated Jewish family whose Jewish souls, whose pintele yid, burns so bright.
“Where will you be for Passover seder?” I asked them as our meal drew to a close.
The awkward blank looks from the beginning of the meal returned.
“I mean, on Wednesday night…that’s when Passover starts, do you have plans for seder?”
A flicker of recognition, the father explained, “Ah, Wednesday night, yes, that’s the night we’re flying home.”
There’s a tradition to keep an empty chair at the seder table, for all the Jews who won’t be sitting at a seder that year.
And this year, our empty chair will be for our new friends from LA, spending seder night on a flight home. We will miss them.
Chag sameach!


  1. This is moving and heartbreaking. To be on a flight on seder night and not realize what a holy night it is. How many Jews have that spark and just need to ignite it and find the right derech. May HaShem help all of His children be close to Him!

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