This Congregation Offers a Safe Space To Celebrate Passover

North Shore Congregation Israel (Glencoe, IL) won a Belin Award for its Community Recovery Seder
November 4, 2019C.E. Harrison

Jewish holidays are a time to celebrate and engage in rituals with family, friends, and in our beloved communities, all of which connect us to our rich and sacred past. For individuals handling addiction and in recovery, however, the act of engaging with others can be difficult.

At North Shore Congregation Israel (NSCI) in Glencoe, IL, Rabbi Ryan Daniels devised a way to be audaciously hospitable to this particularly vulnerable cohort of individuals as they seek a Jewish connection in a safe space: a Community Recovery Seder.

I recently caught up with Rabbi Daniels, who filled me in on this initiative that earned the congregation a 2019 Belin Award. Why is engaging with those in recovery so important to you?

Rabbi Daniels: I spent some time as an addictions counselor before attending rabbinical school. I was really familiar with making interpersonal and intimate connections with people who were struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and it was always a passion of mine after that experience to continue learning and to continue to be part of the recovery community. It’s a really powerful community, an often close knit and enlightened group of folks who are really doing the hard work of t’shuvah (repentance) and growth – spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

How did NSCI begin the initiative of the Community Recovery Seder?

Over the last couple of years, in response to conversations with individual congregants, NSCI has consciously grown what we call our “Hub of Support,” now offering many 12-step groups, including Families Anonymous, Alateen, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

This year, we sought to create meaningful Jewish content and experiences for individuals in recovery and their families. We launched NSCI’s Community Recovery Seder to create a safe and meaningful environment for the recovery community and its allies in which participants engaged with the seder experience personally, as well as communally, lifting up parallels to the recovery journey. Additionally, everyone involved with the planning was in recovery themselves or were allies, family, or close friends of someone in recovery.

What was the seder itself like? How did you create your Haggadah?

We drew 46 participants ranging from college-age to 70s, traveling from near and far. Some attended by themselves, others were with their family and friends, and some came together with their sponsor. The seder included traditional Jewish prayers and interpretive readings, some from recovery sources, as well as opportunities for guided reflection and sharing in small table-groups. The extent to which guests participated was their choice. We only emphasized that we sincerely hoped they would choose to participate in all aspects of the seder, helping to elevate the experience for all.

Our Haggadah was created for this event by a committee of lay leaders and clergy. Much of its content was borrowed from other Haggadot (including “A Haggadah for Spiritual Recovery” developed by Beit T’Shuvah, a congregation and addiction treatment center in Los Angeles, CA), some was original, and everything was carefully placed to help curate an inviting, participatory, and spiritual gathering.

I love how much the Haggadah draws so many comparisons between escaping bondage and mitzrayim (Egypt, “a narrow place”) and the act of pursuing recovery.

I hadn’t heard the addiction/narrow place narrative till I connected with Beit T’Shuvah. The staff and clergy helped frame that narrative for me to see; the narrative is a common one within the community of addiction and recovery.

The 12 steps are a way to move from one’s addiction, “that narrow place.” They’re an opportunity, in partnership in fellowship, with real work, really stepping out of yourself and going to a meeting, asking for help, and sharing your story – all of those things are so central to the Jewish narrative.

We’re all struggling, all of us, whether we’re addicts or not. I think at our best we’re all in some form of recovery, and we’re all battling internal struggles. We’re all battling life. And the Passover narrative of coming from a restricted place and moving toward redemption and freedom and a better place resonates so deeply.

What was the Community Recovery Seder’s outcome?

The feedback we received from our participants was overwhelmingly positive. We heard over and over again from participants how moved they were by the Haggadah, noting its applicability not only for those in recovery, but truly for all people in navigating their own mitzrayim. For so many in attendance, their addiction has prevented them from participating in Passover seders because they are estranged from family and friends and cannot safely participate in ritual that includes multiple cups of alcohol and wine-rich charoset (a mix of fruit, nuts, and wine that symbolizes the mortar Jewish slaves used for building in Egypt). So many carry pain associated with family gatherings, and others have felt marginalized by Jewish institutions.

Additionally, this program brought us closer to our partners in Chicago and around the country, and even brought us into relationship with lay leaders and clergy at a Reform congregation in Florida who were organizing a similar event and asked for assistance in crafting their Haggadah.

This Community Recovery Seder was a homecoming in many ways for our guests and an opportunity to reconnect with Passover, a narrative that so obviously speaks to individuals in recovery, who work one day at a time to liberate themselves from their own personal enslavements.

To learn more about North Shore Congregation Israel’s Community Recovery Seder, contact Rabbi Ryan Daniels. Then, check out the other 2019 Belin Award-winning projects and the congregations that developed them.

Posters about each award-winning project will be on display at the URJ Biennial, the largest Jewish gathering in North America, held December 11-15, 2019, in Chicago, IL. Register now to join thousands of Jews from around the world to learn, pray, share ideas, dance and sing, hear from inspiring speakers, reunite with old friends, create new connections, and more.

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