Passover, the Jewish celebration of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, is an eight-day celebration, which begins at sundown Monday.
Two events at Congregation Beth Shalom are open to the public, including a community Seder at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. That one will be led by Rabbi Andra Greenwald, a member of CBS, and includes a retelling of the Exodus story through the symbolism of the food. A second event, led by the congregation’s recently hired part-time rabbi, Shalom Bochner, is described as a “Passover Shabbat Seder-style meal.” That one will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Bochner, 46, teaches Judaic studies to eighth-graders at a private Jewish school in San Francisco. He is in Modesto two weekends a month to lead services and also will lead other special services, such as Yom Kippur.
“I was impressed by the warmth of the congregation, the diversity of the congregation and the challenges of the congregation, being the only (Jewish synagogue) in the county,” he said.
He received his bachelor’s degree in sociology and Judaic studies from Suny State University in Albany, N.Y., followed by a master’s in education from College of St. Rose in Albany, a Catholic college. “I’m one of the few rabbis who can say I studied with nuns,” he said with a chuckle. He received a traditional rabbinic ordination in Israel.
He considers Passover a pivotal moment in Jewish history. “I think the most important thing is it’s the birth day of the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s our foundational moment of becoming a tribe, becoming a group.”
The Jewish people had gone to Egypt as a single family, he said. According to the Torah, Joseph became an important man in Pharoah’s household and eventually brought his extended family to the land, in part to save it from an extreme drought and the resulting famine. The family multiplied, and hundreds of years later was forced into slavery by a Pharoah who was ignorant of its past importance. God sent Moses, a Jew raised in the royal household, to lead his people out of slavery.
The biblical story commands the Jews to remember Passover each year. A large part of it is the retelling of the story through the Seder meal.
“The focus is the whole notion of awareness of what we’re eating,” Bochner said. “The focus is not only on eating matzah (flat bread), but on cleaning everything of leaven – our cars, our offices, the entire house, every place that food would end up. It’s not only tied into the preparation for the holidays, but also leaven is a symbol for false pride. It’s full of itself. It’s puffed up. So we remove it. It’s not enough to just not eat it. The Torah commands that we not see it, have nothing to do with it.
“In Passover, we’re told to search ourselves as much as we search our houses for the crumbs. We’re to look inward and see what kind of modern enslavement we wish to be liberated from, leaving our stuck places. The Hebrew word for Egypt, ‘mitzrayim,’ means a narrow place. We are to see ourselves leaving our personal narrow places. How do we pledge ourselves to live in a place more free, and to live in a world more free?”
The Seder meal, he said, “is the essence of the celebration. Here we have our most foundational ancient holiday. It’s not surprising that in modern times, it’s the most observed holiday. Seventy-five percent of American Jews will participate in a Seder meal, much more than in Yom Kippur or even in Hannukah. It’s a sense of the salmon swimming back upstream. It’s ingrained in us in a beautiful way; you have to participate in the Seder.”
Greenwald, who will lead the community Seder, said the evening will include a full meal, almost all of it symbolic.
“Consequently, when we share, we talk about that symbolism, why we eat it and what it was meant to teach us about our history,” she said. “So when we dip something into saltwater, it reminds us of the tears we shed when we were in slavery, or when we eat the maror (bitter herbs), we talk about the bitterness of slavery. The children ask the four questions. The whole rest of the telling of the story is an attempt to answer those questions, so the story is passed down from generation to generation.”
One part of the Seder, she said, comes when Elijah’s cup is filled with wine.
“He’s the prophet we expect to announce the coming of the savior,” she said. “Toward the end of the Seder, we fill the cup and open the door and then we watch the cup to see if Eliljah’s drinking from the cup. One of the traditions we follow is instead of just pouring wine into Elijah’s cup, each person at the table pours a little bit of his or her wine into it. It symbolizes that each of us must contribute to the coming of the Messiah, maybe by caring about one another a little more, about treating each other as we would want to be treated. It’s recognizing we’re all in this together.”