"Baruch Atah Adonai . . . ." Ellen Feldstein intoned the ancient Hebrew blessing as she lighted the tall white tapers Thursday night to begin the Passover seder.
But the attentive guests around the festively decked U-shaped table were not members of her family, nor was this seder, being celebrated a week before the beginning of Passover, strictly kosher. The 30 guests assembled in the social hall of Temple Beth El in Alexandria, where Feldstein is president of the congregation, were in fact fledgling members of the protestant clergy. As members of the class on Judaism of the Virginia Theological Seminary just across the street from the synagogue, they had been invited to experience firsthand one of the central holy days of the Jewish year.
"Our relationship with the seminary goes back a long way," explained Beth El's spiritual leader, Rabbi Arnold G. Fink. Earlier in the term he had served as guest lecturer for the Judaism class and, at his invitation, the class had attended a Friday night service at the synagogue.
The Passover seder is a family rite celebrated in the home, with roles defined for the various family members. Seated at the head table, Fink served as the "father" for the seminarians' seder, not only reciting those parts of the ritual assigned to the leader but also pausing frequently to answer questions and explain, just as any father would.
Reading from individual copies of the brilliantly illustrated Haggadah--the book containing the order of the service--the seminarians read the responses with enthusiasm, once they figured out that even though most of the Haggadah was in English, it paged from back to front as do Hebrew texts.
"I see it says on the bottle label that this wine is kosher," observed one of the seminarians as the seder progressed to the first of the ritual four cups of wine. "What's the difference between kosher and nonkosher wine?"
Fink responded that it involved differences in processing and scrupulous cleaning of the wine vats. But the question led to a discussion with Feldstein and several other members of Beth El who were taking part in the seder, of what Fink called "different degrees of observance" of kosher tradition for Passover. Joyce Gordon explained that her household, like many Jewish families, kept separate sets of dishes and utensils used only for Passover, which this year begins at sundown Wednesday.
Mark Ross recounted how he and his wife have made a game for their children of the traditional pre-Passover hunt through the household for the slightest crumb of chametz (food containing leavening or otherwise not kosher for Passover) hidden away in a pocket or a cupboard. After the serious cleaning is completed, he explained, "we always hide a couple of Cheerios somewhere; then we allow the children to look for them" in order to involve them fully in Passover preparations.
Fink nodded approvingly and added, "There are a lot of games like that for the children. Passover is for children--it's their tradition, their history that we celebrate."
The seder ritual itself includes several parts for children, including the "four questions" which begin: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" For this seder, Pamela Gordon, 13, was called on to ask the first question, a role traditionally assigned the youngest child.
Pamela won applause from the students whose course had included a brief introduction to the Hebrew language, by chanting in unfaltering Hebrew not only the question but the answer: that this night is different because the ceremonial eating of special foods such as matzoh (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs dipped in saltwater recalls God's deliverance of the children of Israel from the bitterness (bitter herb) and tears (saltwater) of their Egyptian bondage. The matzoh "is meant to recall that the dough prepared for our people had no time to rise" before escaping from Egypt, the Haggadah explains.
Several times during the seder, Fink said, "You go to the door and say: 'Let all who are hungry come in and eat.' " The invitation was not only an act of charity, which is especially encouraged at Passover, he said, but the reminder of eras of brutal anti-Semitism when Jews were accused of killing Christian children as part of the Passover rites. Passover became for Jews "a dangerous time," he said, a time of pogroms, and thus it became prudent to open the door frequently, "to make sure there was no mob outside."
Fink tactfully did not mention to his Christian guests that, until recent times, the Christian church itself fed such anti-Semitism with its teaching that Jews were responsible for Christ's death. It is one of the ironies of religious history that the Christians' Holy Week--which, as it does this year, frequently coincides with the eight days of Passover--became the time for some of the bloodiest attacks on Jews.
Today, Christian churches reject such views and not a few conduct their own seders as a reminder of the Jewish roots of their own faith. Noting the popularity of such services, Fink advised the seminarians to "please be aware of the differences" between a seder celebrated by Jews as a vital commitment to their faith and an observance, however well-intentioned, by those who do not share that faith.
The seminarians participated not only in the prayers, ritual and songs of Passover, but for most, the evening provided their first encounter with such traditional Jewish fare as gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, tzimmes (carrots and prunes stewed together) and honey-glazed chicken, all prepared and served by the temple sisterhood.
Led by the rabbi and the other members of the congregation, the guests played traditional Passover word games and learned Hebrew songs. Then, after the fourth cup of wine had been drunk, they joined in the final words of the ancient ritual, which Jews all over the world will shout Wednesday night:
"NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM!"