Assistance to the less fortunate was emphasized by many Jewish families in Maryland and across the country last night as they began the eight-day observance of Passover.
Also called Pesach, Passover commemorates the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It is a family holiday, and its characteristic celebration in the home is the ritual meal, the Seder.
Many Jews made the holiday brighter for needy families and individuals by contributing the cost of the kosher foods for Seders through the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
The contributions were in addition to the grocery supplements made available year-round from the agency's Kosher Food Pantry.
About 1,100 local families received help for Passover so that the religious requirements of the Seder could be fulfilled, said Elana Kuperstein of the federation.
About 350 of the recipient families locally were recent immigrants to the United States, celebrating their first Seder in their new country.
The sources of holiday aid were the Jack Sokoloff Passover Food Fund and the Kosher Food Pantry.
In addition, 60 bags of Passover groceries contributed by local businesses were packed by B'nai B'rith volunteers and delivered to homebound Jewish Family Services clients by Young Leadership Council members, Ms. Kuperstein said.
Also, the Kosher Food Pantry added appropriate foods for Passover as it continued to serve the needs of about 150 families who receive weekly grocery bags.
But not all of the Passover charity was for the benefit of Jews.
Thousands of Jewish families across the nation, including many in the Baltimore area, supported a Passover project of Mazon, which since its founding in 1986 has become a principal agency through which American Jews help alleviate hunger around the world.
This year, Mazon asked Jews to pretend they were entertaining an extra guest at the Seder table -- a guest who would not be present for the traditional meals last night and tonight but who would be there in spirit.
Families were asked to contribute the cost of feeding this extra guest to Mazon.
The name of the agency, with offices in Los Angeles and New York, is the Hebrew word for sustenance. When Mazon made its first grants six years ago, the total amounted to $20,000. In 1992, grants totaled $1.53 million, which went to 180 emergency food assistance programs, food banks, advocacy groups, international relief projects and other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations providing food, shelter and counseling worldwide.
An emergency grant of $60,000 went toward therapeutic feeding of 645 starving children in Somalia.
Commenting on this year's Passover appeal, Lee H. Javitch, national chairman of Mazon, said, "Today, there is no parting of waters, no miracles as when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt -- just a need to provide for those among us who are hungry.
"When Jewish families contribute to Mazon the amount they would spend to invite one extra guest to their Seder tables, the tradition of feeding the hungry is fulfilled. As the tradition is fulfilled, so too will we be."
Another national Passover project, which was supported by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation based in New York, sent Kosher food for the holiday to Jews in Russia and Cuba.
Included in the shipments was matzo ball soup mix, matzo meal, gefilte fish, horseradish, salami and wine.
Baltimore Rabbi Ira J. Schiffer wrote to his congregation recently about Passover's traditional charity. "When we discuss issues of oppression, freedom and responsibility in the context of Jewish tradition during Pesach," he told members of the Beth Am Synagogue, "the values and sensibilities of past generations come into play with our own, and Judaism becomes an active force in our lives and thinking."