Whole Foods supermarket customers are accustomed to receiving free samples of gourmet goodies such as rhubarb chutney and goat cheese, so one recent Sunday hands automatically reached out for plates piled high with large, square crackers on a table near the exit. But these weren't your typical crackers.
"Oh yeah, Passover is about to start!" said Kari Rubinstein, 30, a teacher from the District who had a bag of groceries in her hand and a pair of running shoes over her shoulder at Washington's P Street market. "Wait -- when does it start?"
Not exactly deep theology, but it was just the sort of interaction Washington area Jewish outreach groups were looking for when they decided this year to try "Passover in the Aisles." The program brings volunteers to supermarkets to promote the religious holiday -- which marks the Jews' exodus from ancient Egypt and begins today -- and represents a new phase in mainstream Jewish activism in the United States, national outreach groups say, a "public space Judaism" that hopes to reach the growing ranks of unaffiliated Jews by using overt, in-the-streets advocacy. Such methods have been the mainstay of Christian evangelists and the huge Orthodox Jewish outreach group Chabad, whose black-coated volunteers have been in malls and on street corners for decades.
Over the past two weeks, Jewish volunteers from large mainstream groups such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington have fanned out to supermarkets from Reston to Gaithersburg to pass out dozens of Seder kits aimed at making it easier and more fun to observe the holiday's central event.
'CSI: Creative Seder Initiative'
The Seder, or ritual storytelling meal, has traditionally been a serious two-night event, with readings, prayers and multiple symbolic dishes. But the kits aim to keep it simple and entertaining, with place mats based on the TV drama "CSI" (in this case: Creative Seder Initiative), turning participants into "investigators" of the millennia-old exodus story. The kits also include recipes, wine, matzoh and a song booklet with ditties such as "Take Us Out of Egypt," sung to the tune of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Many shoppers stopped at the Whole Foods table. Some touched the place mats and the matzoh reverentially, as though they were rare artifacts; others made cracks about the challenge of eating matzoh in place of all bread products for eight days. People of various ages and races took the kits.
"This is cute. I like the CSI thing! We'll try anything to make the Seder more -- I don't know the right word," said Jon Ariel, 41, a father of two young boys who lives in Montgomery County. He paused. "I don't want my kids to sit through the same boring Seders we sat through."
"Passover in the Aisles" is new to the Washington area, but different versions have started in cities across the country in the past couple years, motivated by the fact that American Jews are more likely to observe the Seder ritual than any other of the year except for the lighting of Hanukkah candles, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank. In other words, to reach lapsed Jews, this is the prime time.
In the past, standard outreach has meant inviting people to private homes for Seders or to large group Seders held in temples and church basements. This new school does not aim -- as evangelicals do -- to convert, but does acknowledge in a new way that Jews need to be in the marketplace with everyone else.
"Americans have multiple choices as to where they attend houses of worship, and that's the mentality that dominates our spiritual culture," said Arnold Dashefsky, director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut. "Whether you like it or not, you are in a competition."
No longer just outreach
Local and national advocates said the new wave in outreach is about "breaking down walls," "giving people options" and "lowering the barriers."
"We don't use the word 'outreach' anymore because it sounds like we're taking you and pulling you in. The big key word now is 'engagement,' " said Sarah Shapiro, 25, a community coordinator for the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
"This is about going to where people are, not waiting for them to come to institutions. Most Jews don't spend time inside Jewish institutions," said Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, which created the program, used from Seattle to Milwaukee and Arlington.
Trying to reach Jews in public spaces is new for mainstream groups, he said, because "this is the first period in which the Jewish community felt comfortable enough to venture outside its four walls."
Some see a dumbing-down of the Seder in things such as the CSI place mats and in the best-selling items on Judaica Web sites: 10 plagues face masks, to be worn when the story is told about God inflicting on Egyptian slave masters curses including boils, lice and locusts; plastic frogs (representing another plague) that can flip around the room; and matzoh ball bingo.
"The basic problem here is that the level of learning in this country has gone down, so the whole Seder, which is supposed to be a more serious experience of actually going through the Haggada [storybook], becomes more onerous for people who don't have backgrounds. They want a Seder but don't know how," said Shlomo Perelman, an Orthodox Jew who worries but also operates two large Web sites that sell the trendy items. "But the most important thing is that someone goes to a Seder."
That was the effect the Seder kit had on Kathleen Overr, 43, who picked one up on her way out of Whole Foods.
"Wow, it's that time of year. I had forgot," said Overr, who moved to the District last year from Los Angeles. Her Ethiopian Jewish grandmother oversaw the holidays by making dishes spiced sweetly with dates and apricots. But once Overr left home, her Passover observance waned. Last year, however, she found herself hosting a dinner with her partner for Rosh Hashanah, a period of introspection at the new year.
"I wanted to understand where I came from, to see if there really was something I really believed," she said. "I think this year we will have a Seder."