Dear Colleagues and Friends,

In this season of many Passover seders in our homes and in the community, I need to tell you about something quite extraordinary. On Wednesday evening I had the privilege of leading a seder here at the JCC for teens and adults with disabilities. This seder has been happening for 16 years under the auspices of The Jewish Community Special Needs Professionals Committee.

It was my first one. Honestly, I have led many community seders but I was not quite sure what to expect. And I will not ever forget this one.

The evening was prepared in meticulous detail; even a special menu was created to reflect the items on the seder plate. People signed in and a number volunteered to participate in certain parts of the seder as some have done for 16 years.

We began our journey from slavery to freedom, from the narrowness of Egypt to the breadth of hope in reaching the Promised Land. I began to call the participant volunteers up to light the candles or chant the Kiddush for the festival or read from the Haggadah. In this process, something magical happened that had me mesmerized. As each person did their part, the room became completely silent. Each volunteer was so deeply focused on their role in the telling of the story that everyone else listened attentively. When each finished everyone applauded. We were all going to the Promised Land. No one would be left behind!

Kavanah is the mystical concept of “intentionality.” The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, taught that it is not only about the words and how they are pronounced, but about the power of the voice and the heart behind the words and the melodies that can ultimately open the Gates of Heaven. I was bearing witness to people who are so often thought of as “needing to be taken care of” now teaching the awesome power of Kavanah.

With the third cup of wine dedicated to those heroes who fought back, I asked everyone in the room if in their lives they had ever fought back. One young woman raised her hand and said,” Yes, I fought back against people who were mean to people like me with special needs!” She had the same conviction in her voice as the Hebrew midwives, the true heroes of the Passover story, who defied Pharaoh by continuing to birth Jewish babies. It was humbling to be in this Passover hero’s presence!

It is said of Passover that you can take the Jews out of Egypt but it was much harder to take Egypt out of the Jews. Changing the way we perceive and sometimes judge people with special needs may be as challenging as transforming a collection of slaves into a free-thinking nation. But this seder opened my eyes to what it means to be a part of the community with all your heart, all your soul and all your might. “From all those who have taught me, I have learned.”

My sincerest thanks to Jan Klein from Jewish Big Brother Big Sister Association and Judy Pearl from the JCC for giving me this opportunity—and especially to my fellow 150 travelers with whom the journey to the Promised Land has never felt so sweet.

A happy and sweet Passover to you and your loved ones,

Mark Sokoll