Matzoh and bitter herbs might not, at first glance, be the obvious response to a spate of violent terrorist attacks on religious institutions. But one Montgomery County Council member hopes the traditional Passover foods — and the bevy of religious leaders who partook of them in Rockville on Wednesday night — will send a message of unity among the county’s many faiths.
About 20 rabbis, imams, ministers and leaders of other religious groups gathered for a midweek version of the ritual dinner that usually ushers in the start of Passover, the Jewish festival that began the night of April 19 and ends this weekend.
County Council Vice President Sidney Katz (D-District 3) said his staff came up with the idea for the event after the deadly mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October and mosques in New Zealand last month. The event came together as the world was reacting to news of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.
“We knew we needed to do something,” Katz said. “We felt like there’s been such turmoil in the world, and whenever there’s been Pittsburgh, New Zealand — the communities from interfaith communities come together quickly.”
Rabbi Janet Ozur Bass, a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville who led the Seder, said its lessons — commemorating the freedom of the ancient Israelites from bondage under the Egyptians — still apply to modern times.
“In this day and age, the idea of liberation is such a hugely important idea,” Ozur Bass said. “Passover is really about imagining what could be. Liberation was never just a historical event. Liberation is about thinking about what this world could bring.”
Katz said it was the first interfaith Seder hosted at government offices in Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction. He said he wants to make it an annual tradition.
“I hope this special Passover Seder serves as a role model for other jurisdictions and counties,” Katz said to the assemblage. “The expression is to break bread. But tonight it’s breaking matzoh.”
While organizers included a concern about bias crimes in Montgomery County when planning the Seder — there were 93 reported to police last year, 37 of them motivated by religion — the focus Wednesday evening was on tragic events worldwide.
“I believe in leaving, we’ll understand that we are far more alike than we are different,” said the Rev. Mansfield “Kasey” Kaseman, the county’s interfaith community liaison, who helped plan the event.
Ozur Bass said she hoped participants would “be able to imagine a world that isn’t filled with bullets and bombs in our sanctuaries, but with all of us sitting together and praying together and being at peace as a whole.”
There were the usual Seder rituals: blessings over grape juice (no wine was served, respecting the Islamic practice of not consuming alcohol), dipping green vegetables in salt water and eating charoset, a paste-like mixture usually made of fruit, wine and nuts that is supposed to recall the mortar that Israelite slaves used while building in Egypt.
But there was also an exercise that involved creating shapes out of pipecleaners, adding abstract sculptures to the table. One participant created three multicolored intertwined loops — representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam, she explained to her seatmate.
While the group was largely quiet throughout the rituals, several features of the Seder drew universal laughter — such as a comment on the decided unfluffiness of the flat matzoh bread and the pungency of the maror, or bitter herbs — otherwise known as fresh horseradish. (The pungent root prompted collective coughs from the crowd, with one woman dabbing her eyes with a napkin.)
It was not the first Seder for Richa Agarwala of the Chinmaya Mission Washington Regional Center, a Hindu organization. She has been to a few large interfaith Passover gatherings in the District, but she said she appreciated the more modest size of Montgomery County’s event.
“It’s much more personal,” she said as she waited in line for the buffet-style meal of stuffed portobello mushrooms, sweet potatoes and vegetarian matzoh ball soup. “I think there’s nothing better than experience. Once you experience it, you know it for real.”
Imam Faizul Khan of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area said he felt his presence at the Seder was key. “It’s important as faith leaders to go beyond our traditions and bring about more solidarity for each others’ faith and belief,” he said.
Ervad Kurush Dastur of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington had never been to a Seder before Wednesday. He said interfaith gatherings like this one send an important message.
“What happened in Sri Lanka a few days ago was very tragic and terrifying,” he said. “When every religion comes together it grows strong. There is unity.”