Schoolchildren invited to taste Jewish culture

Pupils explore the sights, sounds and savors of Passover during a Seder sponsored by a community organization


At her first Seder yesterday, 10-year-old Xeniah Merrell had this to say: Matzo was good. The macaroons were better.

The fifth-grader already had learned about the Jewish holiday with her classmates at Federal Hill Preparatory School. She had heard her teacher practicing her Hebrew in preparation. Now she was sitting in on a model Seder - listening to the Four Questions, drinking kosher grape juice and singing songs to commemorate the exodus of Jews from Egypt and slavery.

"This is interesting," said Xeniah, who said she attends a Christian church. "You get to see different ways that people react to their religion."

Forty fourth- and fifth-graders crowded a dining room for the event yesterday at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which established relations with Federal Hill Preparatory School in 2004 under Mayor Martin O'Malley's Adopt-a-School program. The Associated has been sending tutors and readers to the public school for about 18 months. This was the first visit by the pupils to the organization's headquarters.

"Because we are a Jewish organization, and because Passover has a universal message, we thought it was an opportunity to share an experience that resonates with all of us," said Leslie Pomerantz, executive director of Jewish Volunteer Connection, an agency of The Associated.

Indeed, the songs they sang included not only the Jewish song "Dayeinu," but also the African-American spiritual "Let My People Go" and the protest staple "If I Had a Hammer."

"The Jewish holiday of Passover, or Pesach, is an important one for the Jewish community, and I think an important message for every human being on the planet," Marc Terrill, president of The Associated, told the children, teachers and staff. "In Baltimore and the United States, we enjoy freedom. Freedom to learn, freedom to speak, freedom to do a lot of things as long as we respect the freedom of others. ... Every year, Jews around the world retell the Passover story to remind us that freedom is precious, and respecting people and their freedom is imperative."

Courts have determined that efforts by public schools to teach about religions are constrained by the constitutional separation of church and state. Told about yesterday's event, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said he could not say whether it was problematic.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with trying to educate kids about religions and different religious traditions in order to foster understanding, tolerance and respect," said ACLU staff attorney David Rocah, who was not present for the Seder. "Public schools in particular need to be careful when they're doing that to not cross the line between teaching about religion and having children participate in religious rituals.

"The latter poses at least two dangers," Rocah said. "One is communicating a message that the government is somehow sponsoring these religious rituals, and the other is that children feel coerced into participating in religious observances that are not part of their religious tradition."

Federal Hill Principal Sharon VanDyke said pupils' parents were contacted about the event in advance, and were given the option of having their children not attend. No pupil would have been penalized for not going, she said. All chose to attend.

"We are a Core Knowledge school, where we expose the children throughout the grades to different religions," VanDyke said. "That's part of their history and geography. Not that we teach the tenets of any religion, but we do expose them to the different ones."

Fifth-grader Ellie Stern said she felt right at home at the Seder.

"I like that we're talking about Jewish things," said the 10-year- old, one of the few Jewish pupils at Federal Hill. "I can answer a lot of the questions."

Pupils read from a special Haggadah, a guide to the Seder, prepared by The Associated for the event. They tried the bitter herbs, the roasted egg and the matzo. The last tasted familiar to Allen Aye.

"It was like Communion," said the 10-year-old, who said he attends a Seventh-day Adventist church.

Fifth-grade teacher Emily Giza, who is Jewish, said the Seder was an important opportunity for the children.

"A lot of these kids have never been exposed to traditions outside of their community," she said. "This is learning about different religions, how they share values and how they celebrate freedom."

Colleague Barbara Taylor agreed.

"It's just really helpful to bring it home to them," the fifth-grade teacher said. "They will always remember this."

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