Wilderness Torah's 2022 Rosh Hashanah seder at Green Valley Farms. (Photo/Julia Maryanska for Wilderness Torah)
Wilderness Torah's 2022 Rosh Hashanah seder at Green Valley Farms. (Photo/Julia Maryanska for Wilderness Torah)

Earth-based groups embrace the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder this year

Updated on Sept. 6 at 10:06 a.m.

Noémie Hakim-Serfaty is racing against the clock to collect recipes from her aunt, who lives in France. 

In her job at Urban Adamah, Hakim-Serfaty is one of the people in charge of upcoming High Holiday events at the Jewish educational farm in Berkeley. One of her responsibilities as community programs and ritual manager is planning the menu for a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder — and her aunt is the best Sephardic cook she knows. So far, dishes such as ktsitsot prasa (leek balls), Moroccan carrot salad and Moroccan chard with chickpeas have made the cut.

For Rosh Hashanah, Urban Adamah will hold a weekend of events, many emphasizing Sephardic traditions. Activities will start with the seder on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 15, and continue over the next two days with a Sephardic singing circle, a tashlich ceremony at a nearby creek, a Havdalah bonfire and services with Moroccan piyyutim (sung liturgical poems). Rabbi Tsipora Gabai, who has Moroccan heritage, will lead some of the events.

“It’s the first time Urban Adamah has had such a full lineup of services for Rosh Hashanah, and it’s the first time we will have [High Holiday] Sephardic programs,” Hakim-Serfaty said. “It’s part of a decision to bring new audiences to Urban Adamah.”

In addition to these programs, Berkeley Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev will partner with Wilderness Torah to hold a Rosh Hashanah seder on Sept. 16 in the Chochmat HaLev courtyard.

What is a Rosh Hashanah seder? For Ashkenazi Jews and others unfamiliar with the tradition, it shares some aspects of the Passover seder, such as a festive meal and a seder plate. But there the similarities end.

Instead of a haggadah recounting the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, a Sephardic seder revolves around a series of blessings over simanim, certain foods with symbolic meaning. There are no bitter herbs or shank bones on this seder plate. The simanim can include dates, fenugreek, leeks, beets, squash, pomegranates and even a fish head.

These foods became traditional for the Rosh Hashanah seder because of Hebrew and Aramaic wordplay. For example, the Aramaic term for fenugreek, rubia, is similar to the Hebrew word yirbu, meaning “increase.” Thus the blessing over the fenugreek: “May it be your will, God and the God of our ancestors, that our merits shall increase and that you hearten us.”

We’re interested in having more diversity. There’s a wealth of culture not being celebrated.

Some of the wordplay has to do with crushing one’s enemies. For example, the Hebrew term for a palm date, tamar, resembles the Hebrew word for “end” (yitamu), as in the blessing, “May it be Your will, God and the God of our ancestors, that there will be an end to our enemies.”

The Urban Adamah seder also will include songs and piyyutim, and, of course, the multicourse Sephardic feast Hakim-Serfaty planned.

“We’re interested in having more diversity,” she said. “ There’s a wealth of culture not being celebrated. In terms of Mizrahi Jews, which is what I am, I can say there is a lack of programming, and I think there’s a yearning for that.”

Hakim-Serfaty grew up in Paris in a Jewish family of Moroccan and Syrian-Lebanese ancestry, and has fond memories of Rosh Hashanah seders at home and with neighbors.

For those interested in a more immersive experience, Hakim-Serfaty and her colleagues have also planned a weekend retreat, described on the Urban Adamah website as two days of “connective ritual, meals, learning, song, and rest on the farm.” The retreat is a partnership between Urban Adamah, Moishe House and the Bay Area chapter of Base, a new initiative that aims to reach young Jews outside of the synagogue.

For Yom Kippur, Urban Adamah will host a meditation retreat Sept. 24-25 at the farm, led by Maggid Jhos Singer.

Separately, Urban Adamah will hold Erev Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur and Neilah services for the public, followed by a break-fast meal. Registration is required.

For Hakim-Serfaty, who joined the staff at Urban Adamah this year, helping to design the High Holiday slate of activities was a way to hit the ground running. “I’m excited to be working on a farm and with earth-based Judaism,” she said. “We can bring people together across traditions and origins.”

High Holidays at Urban Adamah — Rosh Hashanah events Sept. 15-17, Yom Kippur events Sept. 24-25. Optional retreat with room and board. Costs vary. At Urban Adamah, 1151 Sixth St., Berkeley. 

Wilderness Torah Simanim Seder and Havdalah — Saturday, September 16, 7:30 p.m. at Chochmat. Tickets: $18–$54 sliding scale. 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.