Seder leaders recount their rookie experiences

Seder leaders recount their rookie experiences

Passover seders can be daunting experiences for first-time seder leaders.
Passover seders can be daunting experiences for first-time seder leaders.

Why is this seder different from all other seders?  Because at all other seders, they were guests. Now, they’re the hosts.

That “fifth question” could have been asked by Sarah Kant and Jane Segal, two Pittsburgh residents who were recently inaugurated as first-time seder leaders.

In late 2011, Kant and her husband, Benjamin, had just moved to Pittsburgh from New York to be closer to Benjamin’s parents.  In December of that year, they moved into their own home in Pine-Richland, in the North Hills, and their second daughter was born in February.

Growing up outside Chicago, Sarah attended family seders that were as large as wedding celebrations.  Some 100 guests would gather in a social hall for an elaborately catered affair, over which her great-grandfather presided.  

During college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she attended seders at the home of a Jewish family who “adopted” her.

Now it was her turn.

“For most of my married life, I really wanted to host Passover,” she said. “No one else in my family claimed that holiday.”

And, since this was the young family’s first real house that was large enough to accommodate a large crowd, the time was ripe.

Undaunted by a 2-month-old infant and a toddler, Kant dove into the planning.  The first hurdle was to purchase a dining room set for their 20 guests — having moved from an apartment, the couple had neither the need nor the space to own dining room furniture.

To keep herself from getting overwhelmed, she tried to cook in advance as much as possible, though not without some obstacles.

She decided on a chicken and stuffing dish after making a “test batch” of brisket the week before, which was lovingly rejected by her in-laws.

She also came up with a dessert for two nephews with celiac disease.

Kant made one mistake, she said, assuming that Barnes & Noble would have hagadas.  It didn’t, and she ended up creating her own through a make-your-own-hagada website,, printing them at a local copy center.

Ultimately, the tailor-made hagada suited her family’s needs even better.

“We were able to make it personal but also brief because I knew that particular crowd was not going to sit through an hour-long seder,” she said. “We managed to cover all the important pieces,” while her brother led the service.

In general, everything ran smoothly with no major glitches, Kant said.  Except for the sponge cake, that is; she declared that “a disaster.”  

She also forgot to calculate the time off from preparation she needed to nurse the baby, but her family stepped up to help tie up loose ends.

For example, she forgot to get something decorative for the table, but her sister-in-law showed up with flowers.

Despite these glitches, Kant reveled in renewing a tradition that spans thousands of years.

“My family was there in my home; there was a great sense of pride in that,” she said. “In retrospect, we lost my father-in-law in September; it was very sudden, but he was here for this, so that’s a good memory.”

• • •

Unlike Kant, Jane Segal, a Pittsburgh native who spends part of the year in Santa Fe, N.M., always spent her seders with her mother or friends. But when she moved West prior to Passover, she didn’t want to skip.

Hosting a seder herself seemed like the best solution.

“I kept it very traditional,” she said, making her mom’s chicken soup and other favorite dishes, such as roasted asparagus, farfel kugel, a brisket and turkey.

Her guest list included both Jewish and non-Jewish friends. With several husbands out of town, though, it resulted in an all-female seder, ranging in age from 40 to 91.

That made for an interesting time, Segal said.

One glitch occurred when her neighbor — a Jewish woman in her 70s whose late husband was a rabbi — brought copies of a nontraditional haggada he had created and was used once at the White House bicentennial celebration during Gerald Ford’s administration. Segal had already purchased traditional hagadas for the seder.

“I was a little lost,” she recalled, “and I was the one running the seder.  It was written more for a general audience.”

One of her biggest challenges was finding kosher-for-Passover food, which, despite a visible Jewish population in Santa Fe, proved difficult.

“In New Mexico, it’s not easy to find food. I did find one little store that you could actually get a lamb shank bone, but it took some ingenuity to get the food you needed,” Segal said. “I was finally able to get the matzo at Whole Foods.  Then I was able to get some gefilte fish. There is a Chabad in Santa Fe and a pretty good population, but still, the pickings were slim.”

She said the best part of her first seder was sharing the experience with friends who had never been to one before.

“I liked having friends there who weren’t Jewish who asked all kinds of very basic questions,” she said. “It makes you think twice to give accurate answers.  Maybe the discussions weren’t as theological, but the people I had were wonderful about wanting to learn more.”

With the hindsight of experience, Segal has some advice for first-time seder leaders:

“I would say find a hagada and know your way through it ahead of time and relax.  Try to enjoy the holiday and what it’s all about and don’t get stressed. Ask people to bring things; don’t feel the burden to have to do it all by yourself.”  Kant agreed.

“Do as much planning and prep work as you can,” she said. Once you sit down at the table, you have to focus on being part of the seder at that point.  It’s easy to worry about the food, but set the timer and be at the table with your guests, with your family, because you don’t get that back until next year, and you don’t know who is going to be at your table or who is not going to be at your table.”

(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at


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