The fifth child: Who is not present at the seder table?

BY RABBI NEAL ROSE

There are Jewish children (B’nai Israel) who are missing from our seder tables. The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, once referred to these “missing children,” as the “Fifth Child” of the Haggadah. He urged us to open the doors of our hearts to these “Fifth Children.”

But why are they missing? Some have chosen not to be present. Others have, unfortunately, been left off the seder guest list. College students, elders, people on small fixed incomes, young families whose economics and lifestyle do not allow them to join synagogues, as well as singles — especially single women and widows; unmarried men, and single parent families often find themselves locked out. Gays and lesbians find that their lifestyle is not reflected in the way synagogues celebrate the various stages of the life cycle. (In fact, some of these folks don’t even feel comfortable having funerals in the context of conventional synagogues.)

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Further we, as an organized community, have not learned how to listen and learn from Jewish dissenters. Little or no space is granted for those who are highly critical of the organized community’s values and priorities. Even less attention is given to Jews who are critical of Israel. Rather than listen to and learn from them, we consign them to the margins or, even worse, we deny their existence. Then there are a large number of Jews who are convinced that organized Jewish life is lackluster. They feel that our organizations have little or nothing to contribute to their already busy lives. They too are marginalized. There are also Jews who don’t sound or look like the rest of us, or act in “strange” or unusual ways. They may have come from other places, they may be ill or suffering with ongoing difficulties.

What is tikkun, really? What are the ways that we can repair some of these communal errors? The short answer is for us, as a community, to create attitudinal changes and to develop programs that are directed to all types of children, including those Rabbi Schneerson called our “Fifth Children.”

In the last several years, for example, JFCS has created two excellent outreach programs that are intended to make “Fifth Children” more welcome at our community table. WINGS provides assistance to individuals and their families that suffer from the effects of mental illness. (WINGS conducts a variety of Jewish holiday programming.)

More recently JFCS has formed a Jewish Prisoner Outreach (JPO) program. The members of JPO provide spiritual and material care for Jews in Missouri prisons. These are centainly necessary programs, and they are an example of what we can do when we take seriously our responsibility for all of B’nai Israel. In so doing, may we be granted the wisdom and courage to reclaim all of our missing “Fifth Children.”

Rabbi Neal Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

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