Serving Up a Pesach Seder for the Neighborhood
Tablecloths, dishes, and cutlery? Check.
Allison’s Pesach checklist is typical. But what makes her Seder unique is that over a hundred guests will be joining her, and it will take place not in her dining room, but at her place of work. Did I mention that the guests are strangers?
Allison is not a Lubavitch shaliach living in some remote part of the world, nor is she the director of a hotel resort. Allison is the manager of T-Fusion Steakhouse, located right here in Marine Park. And for the last three years, before COVD-19 hit, she graciously gave of her time, energy, and resources to fulfill the Haggadah dictum of “May all who are hungry enter.”
(No) Check, Please
Originally, Allison used the venue of T-Fusion as a meeting place to host Sedarim for 25 of her own relatives and friends, since she needed a place suitable to accommodate such a large crowd. Mashgiach Rabbi Yisroel Gornish and his crew kashered the kitchen for Pesach so they could sit upstairs and enjoy a private, intimate meal. The experience was so touching that it gave Allison an epiphany: Why not offer the space for those who live alone, have no family, or have never experienced a Seder before? And that is exactly how the T-Fusion Sedarim evolved from a gathering of a few friends and family to a communal meal with over a hundred people.
Although a proper dress code is expected in most upscale establishments, Allison chose not to enforce one for her Sedarim; she wanted the evening to attract all to the beauty of Judaism, regardless of outward appearance. To publicize the free Seder, she asked well-known members of the kosher food industry such as Elan Kornblum and Gabriel Boxer to post the event on their social media platforms, reiterating that all were welcome.
Gabriel started crying when he got the request. “This is pure chessed, pure achdus. This is what Jewish people are all about!” he said.
“We did not check or screen the people who came,” says Allison. “We welcomed everyone with open arms like we were family.”
Guests from all walks of Judaism participated, from ultra-Orthodox to nonreligious. Some showed up in fine attire, while others wore t-shirts and jeans. For some, it their first exposure to a traditionally Orthodox Seder.
Sofia Birhana was one of T-Fusion’s Pesach Seder participants. “They served us like kings and queens. The food was not rationed, but plentiful and unlimited,” she recalls. Sofia signed up in advance for the event, which turned out to be a good move; on the evening of the first Seder, a line of people waited outside in the hope of getting in. In true Allison fashion, she did whatever she could to accommodate those who had not registered. “You could see the passion in their eyes. This was truly only about the mitzvah for them,” she recalls.
Chabad rabbis were brought in to demonstrate step-by-step instructions of the Seder process. Sam Kapps, another participant, describes the Seder singing as “beautiful” with prayers that “took her breath away.”
Henry Max Goodelman moved to Brooklyn as a young baal teshuvah. He was worried about Pesach since his family is not observant and he didn’t know where he would spend the Sedarim. When he heard about T-Fusion’s Seder he was thrilled, especially since his Hebrew birthday falls out over the Yom Tov and he didn’t want to be alone. He quickly registered with two other friends. “Seeing families from all backgrounds coming together to celebrate and dine in such an elegant setting was a real treat,” he says. “The restaurant served all of the traditional holiday offerings as well as their high-end specialties alongside a basically open bar of top wines for all four cups.” What stands out in Henry’s memory is the privilege of being asked to make Kiddush at the downstairs Seder, lead Hallel, and assist others in following along in the Haggadah. As a baal teshuvah, it is an honor that touches him still today.
Is there a particular guest that stands out in Allison’s mind? “Yes!” she exclaims. “Every single person stood out as a special guest.”
A Family Affair
It’s not just Allison who rolls up her sleeves. The T-Fusion Seder is a family affair, with her daughters, son-in-law Yossi (who is a professional chef), son Moishey, and all the grandkids who get in on the action. “Yossi worked diligently for three days to prep the food at our place for Rabbi Levin’s Friday night Seder,” says Allison adding, “Not skipping a beat, he also managed to help plate and distribute individual meals to everyone.”
Allison credits the unwavering support of her family for making the Sedarim possible. “In spite of all the challenges, my beautiful children and grandchildren have always stood by my side and never tried to discourage me,” she says. “The sole reason I do this is for the grandkids and the next generation so that they can continue doing acts of chessed.” She hopes that others will be inspired to follow suit and help the less fortunate encouraging others to see Pesach as the opportune time to open one’s heart and home.
“My children are all believers in giving to others,” Allison says. “Although there were many issues that came up, we decided to go ahead and do this so that we can enjoy seeing people who are willing to participate in an amazing Pesach.”
Situating a Seder for Hundreds
To accommodate the large crowd, T-Fusion utilized the upstairs and downstairs areas and constructed a huge outdoor tent, which was connected to the restaurant.
Making an industrial kitchen kosher for Pesach was no easy feat. Allison recalls one year when the kashering torch was so hot that it melted the plastic construction materials that were being stored in the back yard. There was no major damage to the restaurant, but a cautionary lesson learned for future endeavors.
To prepare for the event, Allison closed the restaurant a few days prior to the chag so staff could focus on getting the place ready for Pesach. A rented U-Haul truck was parked outside and staff filled it with their regular dishes. Rabbis were hired to kasher the kitchen, a two-day undertaking. Only once the process was complete, were the new dishes, pots and pans allowed in to the restaurant. Next, tables and chairs were set up. Despite being new and out of the box, mounds of silverware were polished and plates wiped down to give each setting that extra special sheen. Local children stepped in and volunteered to do this tedious task that would have taken the regular staff hours to complete.
Finally, Allison’s son-in-law devoted hours upon hours to cooking, prepping, and putting his magic culinary touches to the food. “He would work tirelessly without sleep, in addition to cooking for another place that hired him to supply food for their first Seder,” says Allison.
Many of the Seder expenses were covered by her family and from revenue from the restaurant. The rest came from contributions from different sources and “great people who saw the need and came forward,” she says. Allison wishes to acknowledge some of the main donors and volunteers including Rabbi Yoseph Vigler for providing all the shmurah matzah, Rabbi Levin who arranged rabbis to come and conduct the Seder, Morty and David Herzog from Royal Wine who provided loads of different wines as well as all dishware, Freund’s Fish, tablecloths from Table Top, and B&B Party Rental for supplying the tables and chairs, and Josh Aaugenbaum for donating the funds to make the lavish affair possible.
Although the Seder was free, the fare was far from basic. Each participant was provided with everything needed for a traditional Seder, including matzah, maror, saltwater, lettuce, potato wedges, wine, and bechers. During Shulchan Orech, fish options included gefilte and salmon. Then came Yossi’s homemade delicious chicken soup with egg noodles, followed by a delectable duo of prime rib and roasted chicken with vegetables and potato sides. The meal concluded with fruits and desserts, not to mention wines, sodas, and approved liquors.
The food was pretty costly and it mostly came out of pocket, but Allison has no regrets. “That was something we decided to do to ensure that our guests were comfortable,” she says.
Next Year in Yerushalayim
Sadly, due to COVID-19, T-Fusion’s Sederim have been put on pause. Allison is quick to point out that they are not cancelled, just on a brief hiatus. Currently, she is not as involved in the restaurant business, but she does offer her knowledge of the industry as a professional consultant.
Learning from past experiences, Allison says that even though they employed a lot of help for service, in the future she would optimize the affair by renting out a larger hall.
“With the world in a very different place these days,” reflects Henry, “that moment in time absolutely continues to inspire me. Next year T-Fusion in Yerushalayim!”