Birthright trip inspires first-time Seder host

Guests at Molly Keenan’s Passover Seder, hosted with assistance from NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation,  from left: Ali S., Jonathan B., Jackie O., Peter L., Nissan T., Sean T. and Matt K.(Courtesy Molly Keenan)
Guests at Molly Keenan’s Passover Seder, hosted with assistance from NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, from left: Ali S., Jonathan B., Jackie O., Peter L., Nissan T., Sean T. and Matt K.
(Courtesy Molly Keenan)

Molly Keenan smiles and shakes her head with disbelief at all the work that went into hosting her first Passover Seder last month, which she did with encouragement from NEXT, Birthright Israel’s program for alumni of the free Israel trip. “I’m a procrastinator, and I was kicking myself two days before the Seder wondering why I didn’t start on the shopping list beforehand!”

Keenan attends the University of Arizona as a third-year biomedical engineering Ph.D. student. Aside from working on her dissertation, a task that will take at least another two years, she works as a teaching assistant for a first-year doctoral instrumentation class, helping students troubleshoot their devices. She came to Tucson to continue her studies directly after graduating from Boston University, at the recommendation of her undergraduate research advisor.

Growing up in Sandwich, Mass., “matzah ball soup and kugel was the extent of our Judaism,” Keenan recalls with another ready smile. Her first understanding of an active Jewish lifestyle came from observing her high school boyfriend’s family rituals. She learned from him that the Birthright program existed.

Molly Israel Masada rgb smDuring her transition from the New England coast to the Southwest desert, Keenan admits to experiencing some ups and downs. “I always wanted to visit Israel, but I didn’t know when to go,” she says, “and the timing was perfect this year.” She visited Israel in January on the Birthright Israel-Israel Outdoors program.

Since her trip, she’s made numerous Jewish connections both on campus through the Hillel program and in the greater Tucson community. She was inspired by her experiences abroad to host a Passover Seder at her home. For program alumni, the Birthright Israel Foundation provides step-by-step guidance, Haggadot, recipes and even monetary assistance to cover the cost of hosting the Seder.

Keenan hosted the Seder for a small group of friends, all currently finishing their advanced degrees. The menu included matzah ball soup, pot roast, all-vegetarian side dishes and a berry tart for dessert. She used mostly family recipes from her grandmother.

“After going on the Birthright trip, I wanted to be more connected in a Jewish way,” said Keenan. Hosting the Seder was a big first step for her, and she’d like to host one again. “Or maybe a Shabbat,” she adds.

“Most people who attend Birthright are starting their careers, getting married,” she says, “and using [the program] as their spark for getting back into Judaism.” She remembers marveling at Jerusalem shutting down weekly for Shabbat. “Shutting down for your holiday,” she grins, “as opposed to here, where you hunt for matzah meal in the back of the store.”

For her, the most meaningful part of the Seder was the question and answer component. “The material provided was designed with the 20-something Jewish person in mind,” she relates, “and focused on the concept of injustices in the world.”

Molly’s exquisite Star of David necklace with the Ten Commandments overlaid in silver shines around her neck. It belonged to her grandmother, but she had never worn it prior to her recent reconnection with Judaism. She’d like to visit Israel again in a working capacity, possibly to conduct post-doctoral research in Haifa. “The more I travel,” she says, “[it’s] cool to have that network.”

A highlight of her Birthright experience was becoming a Bat Mitzvah with some members of her group at the Western Wall. Both her experiences in Israel and her first Seder gave Keenan a tremendous sense of continuity. She feels connected to Israel and Judaism in a new way. “These are your people, you came from here,” she says.