About 140 members of six Newtown religious congregations convened at an interfaith Passover seder at Congregation Adath Israel on Sunday.
The seder is the ritual feast associated with Passover, a Jewish holiday that celebrates Israelites being freed from slavery in ancient Egypt. It includes foods that represent the struggles of the Israelites, such as maror, or bitter herbs, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery, that are dipped in salt water, which represent the tears of the slaves.
Presiding over the seder were Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel, Monsignor Robert Weiss from St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, Reverend Mel Kawakami of Newtown United Methodist Church, Reverend Leo McIlrath, Coordinator of Corpus Christi: An Ecumenical Catholic Faith Community, Reverend Kathleen Adams-Shepherd of Trinity Episcopal Church and Reverend Matt Crebbin of Newtown Congregational Church.
The clergy, seated at the head of the room at a table clad in a blue brocade tablecloth and adorned with lit candles and vases of flowers, took turns reading from the Haggadah, a book that contains prayers and songs, recounts the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and explains the meanings of the symbolic foods and when to eat them.
Donna Monteleone Randle, coordinator of the event, missed the ecumenical gatherings she had experienced when she lived in New Jersey and wanted to start something similar in Newtown.
“I thought it would be something fun to do for the town — something for (religious groups) in the town to do together,” she said.
Enlisting the help of Susan Rubin, a member and employee of Congregation Adath Israel, the two sought donations of food and other items from local and area businesses and the participating houses of worship all contributed to preparing the food, flowers and other items integral to the seder.
“St. Rose did all the eggs, United Methodist did all the green vegetables, Trinity did the flowers,” said Randle.
Randle and Rubin said any excess donations not used for the seder would go to the FAITH Food Pantry at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandy Hook.
The seder was alternately a solemn and a joyous occasion. Praver reminded those present that “slavery is not something of the ancient world” but also present in the modern world, citing the “third of (the world’s) Jews who were enslaved during the Holocaust.”
Praver later noted that although the bitter herbs symbolize the suffering of the Israelites in ancient times, today others throughout the world continue to suffer. He exhorted the attendees to contact their senators and ask them to stop the genocide in Darfur.
The mood lightened with the search for the afikomen. The afikomen is a piece of matzah, the unleavened bread integral to Passover, which is wrapped in a napkin and hidden for the children, who by this time in the seder were getting a little antsy. The children who succeeded in finding the matzahs were rewarded with dollar bills.
Things got even more animated when Praver quipped, “This is the place where Monsignor Bob does the break dancing,” and then summoned volunteers from each table to gather in front for a rousing dance to Hava Negila as those at the tables clapped to the music.
Weiss, face flushed from exertion, joked, “Would you bring out the real wine now.