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Op-Ed: Millennial American Jews and the fifth child who isn’t at Passover Seder

Rachel Avraham explains Rabbi Lubovitch’s concept of the 5th child who isn’t at the Passover Seder and connects it to the present situation for millennials in the American Jewish community.
Photo Credit: Rachel Avraham

Every year when the family gathers around for the Passover Seder, we discuss the 4 different types of children sitting around the table. We speak about the wise child, who always asks good questions and bends over backwards to participate in the Seder. We discuss the wicked child, who is generally a teenager that makes a mockery of the Seder. In addition, we talk about the simple child who is too naive to grasp his surroundings and the small child who due to his age doesn’t have the ability to ask questions. However, the Rabbi Lubovitch emphasized that in our times, there is a fifth child who is not even present at the Passover Seder.

In one of his famous letters that he wrote in honor of Passover, the Rabbi Lubovitch stated that the first 4 children have one thing in common: “They are all present at the Seder service. Even the so-called wicked son is there, taking an active though rebellious interest in what is going on in Jewish life around him. This at least justifies the hope that someday also the wicked one will become wise and all Jewish children attending the Seder will become conscientious, Torah and mitzvoth observing Jews.”

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However, the fifth child is not even aware of what is the Passover Seder. He does not know the Exodus story and about the subsequent revelation at Mount Sinai. For this reason, he does not comprehend what he is missing. He is not evil. He does not intentionally mock mitzvoth. This child is merely ignorant of their existence. Unfortunately, this fifth child represents a significant number of American Jewish youth today. According to the 2011 Jewish Study of New York conducted by the Jewish Federation, up to 31% of American Jews aren’t even present at the Seder. Pew Research Center has documented that an increasing number of Jewish millennials feel religious disaffiliation even though they still have a strong connection to “Jewish ancestry, ethnicity and culture.”

What we are witnessing today is not the fault of these children; their parents and grandparents are to blame for this trend. These Jewish children were educated from age 0 to greatly value their secular education but they were not taught that their Jewish education was of equal importance. To the contrary, when their parents and grandparents arrived in the United States between the 1920’s and 1960’s, there was a lot of anti-Semitism. Universities had a quota system that limited Jewish enrollment. In the Jim Crow South, there were still signs that read: “No dogs, blacks and Jews.” In the American South, Jews were also forbidden from living in certain neighborhoods.

In such an atmosphere, American Jewish parents did everything so that their children would fit in and not stand out. Therefore, they asked for their children to imitate the ways of their non-Jewish neighbors. They reconstructed many of their synagogue services so that it would be more similar to a church service. They stopped keeping kosher homes and placing kippahs on their sons' heads. In some extremist cases, they did not give their sons bar mitzvahs and they stopped celebrating many of the Jewish holidays. While the Rabbi Lubovitch acknowledges that the intentions of the immigrant parents and grandparents was to help their children and grandchildren to fit into a new country, he believes that the results are self-defeating: “What kind of existence is it if everything spiritual and holy is traded for the material? What kind of survival is it if it means the sacrifice of the soul for the amenities of the body?”

Without our Jewish soul, we don’t have a purpose to exist. G-d created us so that we can be a light unto the nations and to perform mitzvoth. Our mission in this world is to bring holiness into a world where it is presently concealed. One of the ways that we bring holiness into this world is to do the Passover Seder, which gives us a flavor for what messianic times will be like. After the Jews were freed from the Egyptian bondage, they all moved to Israel. No Jew remained in the Diaspora. This was not the case when the Jewish people were liberated from the Babylonian and Greek persecutions. This was not the case under the Persian Diaspora as well. Even with the rise of the Zionist Movement, there are many Jews who still live outside of Israel. But according to Jewish teachings, when the messiah comes, all of the Jews will move to Israel and for this reason, the messianic era will be like a repeat of the Exodus story. For this reason, by doing the Passover Seder, we get a flavor of what the messianic era will be like and this is important in order to motivate us to be better Jews so that we can work to bring the messiah here more quickly. In this way, by doing the Seder, we transform ourselves from the spiritual bondage of our present lives to the true liberation of our people.

In our Jewish belief system, we believe that the unity of our people is of utmost importance. It is a mitzvoth to love our fellow Jew and to care for his wellbeing. Therefore, the Passover Sacrifice was not just a communal obligation but also an individual obligation for every Jew. Every Jew during the time of the Exodus was supposed to sacrifice a lamb and to place its blood on the door so that the angel of death would pass over. When the Jewish Temple existed in Jerusalem, all Jews performed a sacrifice there during Passover. Therefore, throughout the generations, every single Jew is commanded to attend the Passover Seder: “In every generation, each Jew should see himself as if he had been personally liberated from Egypt.” For us, Passover is not just a communal obligation. It is also an individual obligation and thus, every Jewish individual matters.

Therefore, we should all care about the fifth son who is lost and seek to return him to the Passover Seder for his soul matters just as much as the other children at the Passover Seder. This is the best way for us to express our Jewish unity; by bringing the fifth son to the Seder, we are saying that we are all Jews and we all care for one another, regardless what our background may be. As the Rabbi Lubovitch proclaimed, “The formation and existence of the Jewish home as well as of the Jewish people as a whole is dependent upon the upbringing of the young generation. For all Jewish children, boys and girls, are G-d’s children and it is our sacred duty to see to it that they all live up to the above-mentioned title. An individual, through his Torah-true Jewish living, has an impact on the whole world.” Thus, we all have an individual obligation to reach out to the fifth child so that he too can realize his potential. The Rabbi Lubovitch claims that only after we do this will the Jewish people experience real liberation and can we truly celebrate “next year in Jerusalem.”



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JOL Blogger | Rachel Avraham

Rachel holds a masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University and a BA in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. She is the author of Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media.


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