Few meals can match the symbolism and ceremony associated with a Jewish seder dinner.
Jews throughout the region will begin the celebration of Passover at sundown April 14, said Rabbi Irvin Brandwein, religious leader of Beth Sholom Congregation, 700 Indiana St., Westmont. Passover marks God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.
The holiday also is a time for the traditional seder meal, a meaningful event that is the core ritual of the celebration.
The Johnstown congregation has made it a practice for more than a decade to open the seder to the public. The dinner has grown to be quite popular with the non-Jewish community.
“I would say at least two-thirds of those who attend the seder are not Jewish,” said Barbara Rosenberg, spokeswoman for the synagogue’s Jewish Family Services committee in charge of the event. “While many of the foods in the meal are symbolic, Jewish cuisine is flavorful, and a person doesn’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the dishes. The meal has a gourmet touch and is conducted in elegant surroundings.”
Brandwein said many of the past guests at the dinner have been from Christian churches from throughout the area.
“There is a shared heritage between Christianity and Judaism,” Brandwein said. “We each follow a Passover tradition with themes that are similar.”
The Israelites’ Passover observance is the commemoration of their physical deliverance from bondage in Egypt, whereas Passover for most Christians represents a spiritual deliverance from the slavery of sin.
The seder meal includes matza, an unleavened cracker eaten by the Hebrews as they fled slavery; bitter herbs, which symbolize the bitterness of oppression; and parsley and eggs dipped in salt water, which symbolize new life, spring rebirth and the tears associated with breaking with the past and starting their new life. The meal is a way of passing on the religion’s history and traditions.
For those interested in attending the seder, the deadline to register is April 4. The cost is $25 and reservations can be made by calling 536-0647.
Rosenberg said the meal has been such a success because it is an enlightening experience for non-Jewish members of the community.
“The true credit for the success of the meal goes to Rabbi Brandwein, who translates the story of Passover into a message that is universal to everyone,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg calls the evening an opportunity to share with the community and enjoy camaraderie.
“Above all, it’s an enlightening and spiritual event,” she said.
Families traditionally prepare the seder meals in their home.
“By having it at the synagogue, we welcome some Jewish people who may be alone or their extended families are scattered throughout the country and unable to return home,” she said.
Brandwein said that once the symbolic food has been served and explained, the guests will enjoy a sumptuous five-course kosher dinner.
Because of the dietary restrictions, food for the seder must be purchased from a market in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. While the meal’s $25 fee doesn’t cover the cost, the congregation wants the public to learn about the traditions associated with the meal.
The unleavened matza replaces bread the entire week of Passover, Brandwein said.
“Since bread rises and inflates, it represents self-importance, so we go back to the basics with flour and water that teaches us humility,” he said. “Matza is a symbol of slavery because when they fled Egypt, the Jews didn’t have time to let the bread rise.
“The most relevant part of the seder is that it teaches us that our God demands human freedom,” Brandwein said. “When we hear of the suffering of oppression, we need to oppose the tyrant who hardens his heart to God’s demand for justice and compassion.”
Passover ends at sundown April 22.
What: Community seder meal.
When: 5:30 p.m. April 14.
Where: Beth Sholom Congregation, 700 Indiana St., Westmont.
Reservations: Deadline is April 4.
Cost: $25 a person.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.