Eytan Halaban said he is more of an “emcee” than a host at the Passover seder he and his wife Ruth have held in Davenport College for nearly two decades.
Sitting with about 40 students, faculty and family members in the Davenport Common Room on Tuesday night, he encouraged students to read religious texts aloud and bantered with his wife, Ruth, and Provost Peter Salovey, who sat on either side of him.
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“Everybody sees a little piece of their grandparents in the way Eytan and Ruth conduct seder,” Salovey said. “It feels very familiar.”
The Halabans, who have been Davenport residential fellows since 1992, left most of their family behind when they immigrated here from Israel, Halaban said. Until five years ago, they hosted small seders — dinner ceremonies that mark the start of Passover — in their large room in Entryway B of Davenport.
When Davenport was being renovated in 2005, the Halabans had to move to Swing Space, where the room they used was too small for 20 guests. And so they held the seder in the Swing Space common room and opened it up to everyone, Halaban said. It was such a hit that after the couple moved back to Davenport the following year, they decided to hold their seder in the bigger Davenport common room, where the meal has been held ever since.
The seder has now become a tradition in Davenport, one of eight residential colleges to host a seder catered by the Slifka Center this year. Rabbi James Ponet, Jewish chaplain and head of the Slifka Center, said Slifka also hosted four official seders Monday and Tuesday, including one for students and one for New Haven community members. Slifka even had a new “seder-to-go” option with the food and religious texts prepared for pick-up for students who want to host their own seders. Ponet said this option allows students more flexibility in religious expression.
“The benefit is that rather than be forced to follow a rhythm to go through the [religious Passover text] Haggadah — because there are just so many now — students now have the option to just come in with a friend,” Ponet said.
Slifka catered for two colleges Monday night and six additional colleges Tuesday night, Rabbi Lina Zerbarini said. Student organizers are responsible for planning seders in many colleges.
In Pierson College, Master Harvey Goldblatt has been hosting a seder at his home every year for about 12 years. Goldblatt said that 12 to 18 students and faculty members attended his first seder; this year, more than 45 people e-mailed to reserve spots at the Monday night seder.
Goldblatt said he decided to invite people to his home because he wanted to take in students who lived too far to go home for Passover, as well as to introduce non-Jewish Pierson students to the Jewish religious tradition.
“I try to make it as homey as I can, which is important especially for the students who are far from home,” he said.
Although there were as many as eight options for a place to attend a seder Tuesday night, students said that it was not a problem deciding which to attend.
Harris Eppsteiner ’12, campus Hillel outreach chair, said students decided based on the experience for which they were looking.
“It’s a different experience going to a seder with four or five or your closest friends and going to a large communal seder,” he said.
Ponet said that some of the seders, even within Slifka, differed in their structures and their levels of formality. The smaller seders among friends are more likely to be informal, while seders led by the rabbis are more traditional and formal, he said.
Mira Vale ’13, who decided to go to the Slifka freshman seder instead of her residential college seder in Pierson, said the choice was easy.
“I only had one chance to go to the freshman seder,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to attending Master G’s in the future.”
Vale said the Slifka event attracted a different, more expansive community than she normally saw at the center, including students she “didn’t even know were Jewish.”
For many who observe Passover, the most important part of the seder is being around family and friends.
Lucas Pratt ’12, who attended Halaban’s Davenport seder Tuesday night, said he liked the familiarity of the residential college seder.
“This one is more like having a seder with your own family,” he said. “It’s home.”
At the end of Tuesday’s seder, Halaban prompted everyone to drink a fifth cup of wine, one more than the traditional quartet. He called it the Davenport cup.
“This is Davenport,” he said. “Finish the cups.”