Shoshana Silberman has had a lifetime commitment to a hands-on, participatory form of Judaism, and her latest work is a definite reflection of that.
Silberman, a Lawrence resident, is about to publish her fourth haggadah, the book that lays out the Passover seder ritual. But this new volume, “The Rosenstein Haggadah,” was also an opportunity to honor to her long-time friend, 85-year-old Jewish artist Mordecai Rosenstein, by using his prints to highlight the haggadah’s rituals and narratives.
“The Rosenstein Haggadah” will launch along with a large exhibition of Rosenstein’s work and a short presentation by Silberman, Sunday, March 11 at 5 p.m., at the Jewish Center, 435 Nassau St., Princeton. Rosenstein has also designed an art activity, for children and the young at heart. Copies of both “A Family Haggadah” and “The Rosenstein Haggadah” will be available for purchase or to order. The program is free and open to the community, but call at (609) 921-0100 to register because the evening will include a light dinner.
The genesis of the new haggadah was a chance meeting between Silberman and Rosenstein at a Sabbath service at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where the artist was exhibiting and teaching about his work. Silberman’s friendship with Rosenstein began when he was still a framer, just starting to experiment with the lithographs that she and her husband, Mel, ended up collecting.
Impressed by Rosenstein’s newest paintings, which she saw at the September 2014 service—“they were so bold and colorful and were very engaging,” she says—Silberman decided they would work perfectly in a haggadah and spontaneously suggested the idea to the artist. He liked it, and she got to work.
Her task was to review the 200 color copies of Rosenstein’s work sent by his archivist and match them with the haggadah text. Sometimes the fit was perfect, like a wine goblet to represent the blessing over wine. But even for something as concrete as the candle lighting that initiates the Passover festival, all she found was a Sabbath scene with candlesticks and challah, the special bread for Friday night—but of course bread is not allowed on Passover, only unleavened matza. So instead she selected an abstract piece with a large, gold area that she could imagine as being candlelight.
In other cases, she took prints capturing Jewish values and matched them to themes in the Exodus story or other texts in the haggadah. A painting titled “Trust” brought to mind the trust in God that enabled the Israelites to cross the sea and follow Moses through the desert. A print about learning and teaching became an apt illustration for the story of four children—a wise, rebellious, and simple child, and one who does not know how to ask—who, each in their own way, ask questions about Passover and the seder and get answers suited to their learning needs.
The Hebrew came from an earlier work “A Jewish World Family Haggadah” (ibooks, 2005), but Silberman selected completely new commentaries—from her personal haggadah collection as well as online sources. “I wanted this to be a haggadah that represents the totality of the Jewish world, not with a particular bias or a particular slant,” she says. “I wanted there to be an exposure to different points of view about what the text meant.”
Although all her haggadahs have included ideas about how to make the seder and the whole Passover experience more participatory, she decided in this case to put these suggestions in a separate section she called “Creating a More Lively Seder.” It includes ideas to more actively involve children and adults in the seder experience.
Silberman grew up in Union, where her father, trained as a lawyer, worked as director of conventions and special activities for the United Synagogue of the Conservative movement, whose summer camps helped form Silberman’s Jewish identity. “The thing that turned me on to being Jewish was attending Camp Ramah in Connecticut,” she says. “I loved that style of informal Judaism, the style of participatory celebrations.” The camp, she adds, “tried to look at what was progressive in education and apply that to camps—so the camp had real spirit about it at that time.”
These ideas of progressive education became a guiding theme in Silberman’s path to becoming a Jewish educator. As a regional and national officer in the Conservative movement’s youth group, United Synagogue Youth, she says, “I saw how you can combine serious learning with the social and cultural aspects,” and she learned how to “create an environment where learning would flourish.” She also saw “the power of organizations and the power of moving people—you could get this great ruach [Hebrew for “spirit”].”
Silberman got deeper into Jewish studies as part of the Joint Program of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Columbia University School of General Studies, where she graduated a year early with bachelor’s degrees from both institutions in 1963.
She started teaching religious school in college and continued during the next year, which she spent with her new husband, Mel, who was finishing his senior year at Brandeis University.
The couple moved to Chicago, where she earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Chicago, and in 1968 she and Mel moved to Philadelphia.
In addition to her early experiences and education, Silberman’s early involvement in the havurah movement honed her ideas about Jewish learning. Started by baby boomers in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the big cities on the two coasts who were dissatisfied with the hierarchical nature of traditional synagogues, each havurah, she says, was “a fellowship of people who want to get together to celebrate, have a sense of family, have a sense of spirituality, and share that experience together. It is a participatory, lay-led experience that opened the door to being creative.”
In 1972 she and Mel created one of the earliest havurahs, the Germantown Minyan, and she calls her involvement with the havurah movement her “biggest transformation.” She recalls, “I learned that after studying and learning, you could be creative and playful; you could find more experiential ways to teach people and study together.”
From 1972 to 1974 Silberman served as principal of Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, where she was given “a rare opportunity” to create an unusual, creative school that “would have lots of experiential learning.”
Following two years at the Solomon Schechter Jewish day school in Elkins Park as assistant then acting headmistress, she spent two years as principal of the Norristown Jewish Center, which gave her experience in a school that was very structured and skill oriented. “I learned how I could do that and do some creative things as well,” she says. Also during her six years working in Philadelphia, in 1976, Silberman completed a doctorate in early childhood and elementary education at Temple University.
In 1983, Silberman became director of the religious and nursery schools at the Jewish Center in Princeton. “By then I had different experiences, and I was able to think about what kind of community Princeton was and what it was they wanted and needed,” she says. Using the experience gained in designing and supervising several schools, she nurtured growth at the Jewish Center’s schools from a little over 200 when she began to 600 students when she left after a 12 year tenure.
It was while she was educational director at the Jewish Center that Silberman first got into the business of writing haggadahs. It started with parents asking her to recommend haggadahs. “They had so many criteria,” she says, explaining tht they wanted a haggadah that would work for a sister with a preschooler, a brother married to a non-Jew who had non-Jewish teenagers; a mom who wanted a book with big enough print and a washable cover. “I didn’t know of such a book, so I just did it,” she says.
“The Family Haggadah,” focused primarily on families with very young or preschool children, was not only user friendly and widely accessible, but also interactive. “It couldn’t just be a telling; it had to teach people to ask good questions or learn interesting commentaries that would get them thinking about things,” she says, adding that it was also distinguished by using gender-neutral language when talking about God.
About eight years later, people started calling her again—to tell her that they had answered all the questions and read all the commentaries in “A Family Haggadah”; also, children who were 10 when it was published were now 18 and “were ready for a different book.” The result, “A Family Haggadah II,” focused on older children and adults.
In 2005 she published “The Jewish World Family Haggadah, illustrated with Zion Ozeri’s photographs of Jews around the world, in particular, Silberman says, “photographs of Jews in places where the last generation of Jews would be there.”
After leaving the Jewish Center, Silberman worked for 15 years as a consultant for the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, focusing on early childhood education, Hebrew language, and prayer. After a time she was also assigned to supervise teacher training in Bucks County, where she did workshops for teachers, ran a principal’s council, and created an annual conference for all teachers in Bucks County.
After Silberman’s husband died in 2010, she moved to Montclair to be closer to her daughter and her grandchildren, and while there she wrote a curriculum for third and fourth graders on modern slavery for the website freetheslaves.net.