Model Seder shares customs

Passover: HCC students and staff learn about the Jewish holiday and its traditions.

April 02, 2004|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In an instant, the multipurpose room was filled with coughing, nose-blowing and red faces.

Participants had just swallowed ground horseradish during a model Passover Seder at Howard Community College. But the bitter sharpness was quickly replaced - much to the group's delight - with a bite of a sweet, pasty mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and grape juice called charoset.

These culinary extremes symbolize the centuries of slavery endured by the ancient Israelites in Egypt and their subsequent exodus, and they are also lessons for life, said Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia, who led the Seder.

"We can't expect times to be all sweet or all hardship," Baron said. "We have to be appreciative of whatever God gives us - the challenges and the gifts."

Passover, which begins at sundown Monday, is traditionally celebrated with a Seder on the first two nights of the weeklong holiday. The Seder, which in Hebrew means order, is filled with ritual and symbolic foods. It also includes the retelling of the Exodus story and a traditional, festive dinner.

"The Seder is the ultimate multimedia experience," said Sue Bard, faculty adviser for the college's Jewish Student Union and a biology professor.

Baron discussed the contemporary relevance of the Seder as well as its rituals during the 90-minute model Seder Monday afternoon that was sponsored by HCC's Jewish Student Union, Student Life - the student activities organization - and the Diversity Committee, which exposes students, faculty and staff to cultural programming.

About 75 students, faculty and staff members and local residents attended the Seder, which included a catered kosher lunch.

"I want to learn the traditions of other cultures," said Stephanie Pina, director of financial aid who attended with colleagues. "We work with a diverse group of students, so we are trying to learn about our students. From my perspective, because I am a Christian, I found the similarities and differences interesting."

Helen Mitchell, an HCC professor of philosophy who teaches Religions of the World, brought 10 students. "It was wonderful," Mitchell said. "What a different experience than just reading about it. It was so hands-on. And [Baron] brought it into the present, right into our lives."

The model Seder - which is to be an annual event at HCC - was initiated last May by Robin Saunders, director of Student Life. "I have always heard so many wonderful things about the seder and thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty and staff to experience," Saunders said. "We asked Sue to make it as authentic as possible."

Bard asked Baron, who has participated in numerous Jewish Student Union Lunch and Learn programs, to lead the model Seder. Baron focused on the Seder highlights and explained the significance of the Seder foods, the Exodus, Four Questions and Ten Plagues, and the Seder's universal messages.

"The message of the Seder is the true meaning of liberation," Baron said. "The Seder is a lesson in spiritual growth, to become what we truly should be. The Jewish people were liberated to receive the Torah, to lead them to a more spiritual life."

Tables were set with grape juice, matzo and plates of horseradish, charoset and salt water. Baron displayed a Seder plate that included a shank bone, hardboiled egg, bitter herbs, charoset and parsley.

The shank bone, Baron said, symbolizes the Passover offering that the Israelites sacrificed when redemption was imminent. "The Jews needed to demonstrate an act of faith," he said. "Egyptians worshipped the lamb, so it was an act of courage and faith to celebrate their redemption even before it happened. Can we today have enough faith to know we will be delivered from difficult situations?"

Participants then dipped parsley into the salt water, which represents tears of slavery. "A person should never forget the hard times even when things are going good," Baron said.

Matzo, he said, represents the Jews fleeing in haste without time to allow the dough to rise. Baron then held up hand-made, round matzo that he obtained from the Ukraine.

Baron also discussed the Four Sons - wise, wicked, simple and the son who doesn't ask questions - and how to speak to them about Passover. "This reaffirms our commitment to the values of Judaism when we transmit to others," Baron said. "And there is recognition that no child is the same; each has his own level of learning."

Many Seder rituals, said Baron, are intended to arouse the curiosity of participants - particularly the children - and provoke questions.

Baron also led the group in a spirited singing of the Seder song of gratitude, "Dayenu," which means, "It would have been enough."

As participants drank grape juice and ate matzo, Baron directed the group to lean to the left "to symbolize the luxury of freedom," he said. "We are no longer slaves and we can relax."

The group also dipped bitter herbs into charoset, then sampled history's "very first sandwich," said Baron, of matzo and bitter herbs. "It's a bittersweet combination, but we can relax a little and lean."

Everyone later had grilled chicken, potato kugel, Israeli salad and cake. "We're having a lovely time," said Donna Lloyd, office supervisor of HCC's Office of Admissions and Advisement. "It's very educational. I was always curious about Jewish culture. It was a great opportunity."

"I had a great time," said student Jonathan Ducharme. "I wanted to learn more about the Jewish tradition. That helps me explore more about my own faith."

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