Does matzoh ball soup taste different in Italy? Eighty study abroad students found out this past April when they gathered in Rome for Passover seders organized by Hillel students.
In its first programming effort targeted specifically at American students studying abroad, Hillel held two seders at the Jewish community center in the Trastavere area of Rome. The seders attracted capacity crowds both nights from sites all over Europe and Israel.
The seders were coordinated by University of California, Berkeley students Jason Leivenberg and Sammy Averbach. Leivenberg and Averbach, both alumni of Hillel’s Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative and Taglit-Birthright Israel, led the service, along with Jon Kelsen, a Jewish educator from Pardes in Israel.
As students studying abroad themselves, Leivenberg and Averbach hoped the seders would create an experience where people felt like they had a community while away from home.
“At least fifteen people came to the seder not knowing anyone and we were able to provide them with a Jewish experience,” Averbach said. “Those who came as strangers left with new friends.”
Many of the participants used the experience to explore Judaism on their own terms, without the influence of parents or family.
“I was so happy to be with other American Jews my age celebrating Passover in Rome because they felt motivated to celebrate and not because their parents made them,” said University of Illlinois at Urbana-Champaign student Lauren Waldstein.
Melissa Branovan, a student at Penn State University student, also enjoyed experiencing a departure from her family’s traditions and the opportunity to meet new students.
“I knew this seder was not going to be like home but I was pleased and surprised by how many people showed up and how much fun we had,” she said.
Based on this year's success, Averbach and Leivenberg hope overseas seders will become a new Hillel tradition.
“I hope this event can continue to happen with multiple seders taking place in major study abroad cities so that more students can participate in holiday experiences while studying abroad," said Leivenberg.