In the weeks before Passover, Mormon university students in Utah learn about the holiday through a unique event — the Brigham Young University Passover Seder Service.
“The best word is ‘simulation’ of a Jewish Passover seder for members of the community in Utah, which has an admittedly small Jewish presence,” said BYU professor Jeffrey Chadwick, who runs the event. “We expose our own community and student body to Jewish traditions and the richness of the Passover experience.”
Chadwick, who teaches Jewish studies, leads students through the haggadah, the book of ritual texts that guide the seder, as they learn Hebrew prayers, enjoy a glatt kosher meal and sing “Chad Gad Ya” and “Dayenu.”
“The event is big,” Chadwick said. “We have three or four a year, with 200 people [at each] and 800 to 1,000 served every spring.”
The seders take place at the Wilkinson Student Center on BYU’s Provo campus. They are a 41-year tradition at BYU. When they began in the late 1970s, Chadwick said, “It became an enjoyable event, so popular we had to schedule multiple sessions of it, which is not normally done in Jewish culture.”
However, he said, “it’s a learning experience. We do not attempt to present as a Jewish-sponsored experience, [but as] an educational experience.”
‘We do not attempt to present as a Jewish-sponsored experience, but an educational experience’
This year, 175 students and community members attended the first seder on March 10. The March 24 event drew a capacity crowd of 250.
“Our general experience is that people absolutely love it,” said Chadwick, who said the third and final seder on April 7 has already sold out. Passover begins on April 10.
“We have [the seders] around the actual night of the seder,” Chadwick said. “We generally prefer Friday night, which is a better night for people in the community and college students. It involves three, three and a half hours in the evening.”
“We want to be very careful that what we’re doing is not [something] pretending to be the real Jewish Passover… We enjoy it very much, but we don’t want to make the Jewish community in Utah think we’re trying to usurp them,” he said.
In the spirit of the holiday
Many Mormons identify with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which founded BYU and provides support and guidance for students, according to the university website.
But, Chadwick said, “We want to be very specific. We do not Christianize Passover.” Instead, he hopes to show links between the Old and New Testament, Judaism and Mormonism.
The BYU seder began in the late 1970s under professor Victor Ludlow, a scholar of Judaism and Isaiah with a PhD in Jewish studies from Brandeis University.
After his studies at Jewish-founded Brandeis, Ludlow “felt an interest in having the Mormon community… understand the Passover experience better,” Chadwick said. This led to an educational seder.
Ludlow would “take five minutes [to explain] how it wraps into the story of the Last Supper of Jesus, or the Book of Acts,” said Chadwick. “[Students would say] ‘Oh my goodness, very interesting.’”
“Most Christians, including Latter-day Saints, are very surprised to learn that Jesus was a practicing, for his time rather normative, Jewish teacher, attending Jewish festivals named in the four Gospels — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Hanukkah and Passover annually,” Chadwick added. “His arrest and death occurred at Passover. He dies after he himself [held an] early Seder with his 12 apostles.”
‘Most Christians are very surprised to learn that Jesus was a practicing, rather normative, Jewish teacher’
“Most Christians have no idea the Lord’s Supper has elements of the original Passover, the matzah and Passover wine… Students and others alike are delighted to learn the origins of Christian tradition are very tied to Jewish tradition.”
Mormonism offers additional parallels with Judaism, scholars say.
“Mormons feel a greater connection to and continuity with ancient Israel than do most Christian groups today,” said former BYU adjunct religion professor Jacob Rennaker.
Rennaker is currently a scholar in residence for the John A. Widtsoe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is working with the University of Southern California to endow a Chair of Mormon Studies and is engaging in interfaith dialogue projects.
“For instance, the Book of Mormon claims to contain the writings of ancient Israelites who fled from Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian exile and who, through divine guidance, traveled to the Americas. There, they established a society founded upon the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and their own subsequent divine revelations.”
Mormon history contains another exodus. After its founder, Joseph Smith, was killed in Illinois in 1844, Brigham Young, who succeeded him as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led church members to Utah, earning the nickname “American Moses.” There he helped found the University of Utah and the university that bears his name.
Mormons “see their forced exodus from the US into what was then Mexican territory in Utah as similar to the Exodus of the Hebrew scriptures,” said Harvard Divinity School professor David Holland.
Holland’s father, Jeffrey Holland, is a former BYU president and a current member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the governing bodies in the Church of Latter Day Saints.
“Even the landscape of Utah — the salt sea, the freshwater lake, and the River Jordan between those [two bodies of water]… These are real powerful markers of identification,” added Holland.
The connections go back to Mormonism’s earliest days.
‘From the very beginnings of the church, Mormons had a need to understand Hebrew culture and language’
“Joseph Smith hired the leading Hebraist in America, Joshua Seixas, a Sephardic Jew whose family was very prominent in early America, to the Mormon settlement, where he taught the leaders Hebrew,” Holland said.
“From the very beginnings of the church, Mormons had a need to understand Hebrew culture and language. It has ebbed and flowed over the years. [But throughout] Mormon history, there’s been some natural flowering, and the seed is always present in Mormon thought.”
Sometimes, though, there have been tensions.
“Mormons have a practice of baptizing people who passed away by proxy, seeing it as an extension of love that is appropriate for people who have gone before,” Holland said.
“The practice of baptizing Holocaust victims became a huge controversy. Elie Wiesel and others responded. They asked the church to desist… These were persons who died for their Jewish identity.”
There have also been attempts to generate understanding. After attending a BYU seder as an undergraduate in 2005, and another at BYU’s Idaho campus the previous year, Rennaker said that “both of these seder events helped me to better understand Jewish religious practices and through them, I gained a sense of holy envy for the religious lives of my Jewish neighbors in a way that my academic studies haven’t provided.”
Keeping the tradition alive
When Ludlow retired in 2011, the BYU Seder in Utah’s fate was uncertain. “The desire of the administration and university was that [they] would really like to do this,” Chadwick said.
So Chadwick stepped in, bringing experience from Israel. He spends one-quarter of each year teaching at BYU’s Jerusalem Center on Mount Scopus, and is a senior field archaeologist at Tell es-Safi, or Gath, home of the biblical Goliath.
“I’m familiar with the American Jewish experience, and also the Israeli Jewish experience,” Chadwick said. “[The way] I will present the seder would be slightly more Orthodox than Vic’s was. His experience was more American Reform. I would say [mine is] a very Modern Orthodox, from experiencing the seder with family and friends in Israel on numerous occasions.”
The purpose remains educational. “We’ll start out with 20 minutes to give the basic background of Passover from the Torah and explain what occurred in Exodus,” Chadwick said. “We help them correlate it with their own religious courses.”
“One of the things that many of them comment on is the symbolism of the marror, the bitterness of bondage in Egypt,” Chadwick noted. “I get a lot of comments from the eating of some of that horseradish. I always advise [to eat] just a little bit, in a Hillel sandwich, with charoset and matzah. It’s not the most flavorful experience.
“When they taste that, it’s very interesting. Some say, ‘you really remember the heritage of your ancestors if you have something to remind you of the difficulty of the experience,’ with a wry smile.”
‘You really remember the heritage of your ancestors if you have something to remind you of the difficulty of the experience’
Attendees are two-thirds students and one-third community members. Several Jews from Provo come every year.
“They grew up in the eastern US and look forward to it, even if it’s not on the night of the actual seder,” Chadwick said.
There is one more seder opportunity this year on April 7.
“[Students say] how interesting it was to learn about Jewish traditions and the ancient Passover,” Chadwick said. “You grew up Christian, Mormon, you would hear about the Scriptures in the Old and New Testaments, and you don’t know what it is. It’s just great to learn what this is.”