The symbolic bitter herbs, the matzo and wine and the Hebrew prayers triggered warm, long-lost memories for Semyon Berkovich.

He had first learned the Jewish ritual from his grandfather in the Soviet Union many years ago. But with his grandfather's death -- and the Soviet repression of his religion -- Berkovich had let the Passover tradition lapse. r

But tonight at sundown, the start of the eight days of Passover, Berkovich and his wife will teach their children about Passover through a seder, the traditional set of prayers and foods that commemorate the flight of the Jews from Egyptian slavery more than 3,000 years ago.

For the Berkoviches and many other recent Soviet Jewish immigrants, the Passover celebration this year also will mark their own flight to freedom. t

To help such families as the Berkoviches reacquaint themselves with the Passover tradition, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington last week invited a dozen former Soviet families to a model seder with American families.

"Every day we bless and love the Unite States more," said Leonid Roytblat of Hyattsville with the help of an interpreter. It was the Roytblats' first Passover in a free country.

For some children, like 6-year-old Julia Shargorodskaya, it was their first seder, and the foods were as foreign as the Hewbrew and English prayers that were spoken.

Each time a new food was introduced in the traditional Haggada story and prayers, the puzzled children would tug at their parents' sleeves or call out questions. The parents welcome this, since the seder is viewed as a chance to teach their children Jewish history.

Elaine Mann, who helped plan the model seder and who is director of Judaic studies at the Rockville center, said it is important to help immigrants understand Jewish history because many of them have limited religious backgrounds.

"The teaching of religion is forbidden to anyone under 18 in the Soviet Union," she said. "Teaching Hebrew is almost dangerous and clandestine -- it's part of the Soviet Union's objections to the Jews, they believe it weakens loyalty to the motherland," she said.

But Mann said she believes it is also important for the former Soviet families to socialize with American families -- which last week's seder also accomplished.

Each Soviet family sat at a table with an American family with children close in age, giving them a chance to exchange names for future family gatherings.

Mann said the response to the experimental seder was so overwhelming that the center had to expand its original guest list from 80 to 130.

The center sponsored a Hanukah party for a much larger group of former Soviet Jews last year to acquaint them with this tradition.

In addition to the last-minute refresher on the Passover ritual, the B'nai B'rith assembeld 100 boxes of kosher Passover food that volunteers delivered to area Jewish immigrants yesterday.