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Monday, April 6, 2009

Catholic Students Learn About The Jewish Passover

*Reprinted From The Los Angeles Times

In an effort to promote understanding, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest host a Seder to teach high schoolers about the similarities and differences between the religions.

April 06, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

It wasn't so much that about 85 high school kids were in a synagogue for a Passover Seder; it was that there was hardly a Jew in sight.

But that was the idea for this gathering, to teach Catholic high school students about the holiday that commemorates Moses' leading the Jews out of Egypt and slavery.

"Your faith wouldn't have existed if we weren't rescued from Egypt," Rabbi Isaac Jeret told the students who gathered at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes last week.

This marked the third year that Catholic students went to the synagogue to learn about Passover, what Jeret called "for the Jewish people, our master story." He said the event "is one of the most important things we do in this synagogue each year. . . . We explore how different and similar our faiths are."

The Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, in charge of ecumenical affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who sat next to Jeret, said the archdiocese has engaged in many programs with Jews recently. "All are an effort to grow an appreciation of each other," he said.

Elsewhere, Catholic students also are attending Seders. This year, for example, all 1,200 students at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance attended Seders in the gym.

"We were looking to our elder sisters and brothers in faith," Smith said.

Neither Smith nor Jeret, the son of a Holocaust survivor, airbrushed the Catholic Church's past anti-Semitism. Matzo, the unleavened bread eaten on Passover, has led to "some of the darkest moments of history between our people," Jeret said. He told the students about "blood libels," when Jews were falsely accused of killing Christian children to use their blood in matzo.

"The result was many Jews were killed at the hands of the Church," Jeret said.

Smith, whose full shock of gray hair falls to his shoulders, later added, "The history between Catholics and Jews has not always been pleasant. We're still working on that."

The Ner Tamid Catholic Seders grew out of the close relationship between the synagogue and Catholics on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

In early 1999, at a conference at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, a Catholic unexpectedly proposed marching from the center to Ner Tamid to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when German mobs attacked Jews, burned and vandalized synagogues and destroyed Jewish-owned stores in 1938.

About 1,000 people took part in the 1 1/4 -mile candlelight procession, and another 1,000 met them for the program at the synagogue. At Ner Tamid, the Catholics presented the synagogue with a sculpture made of unbreakable glass.

Out of that march came the Dawn Unity Group, dedicated to continuing the interfaith dialogue in Palos Verdes. The group holds four programs a year.

Passover, an eight-day celebration, begins this year at sundown Wednesday. Seders, in which the Passover story is read from the Haggada, usually are held in homes, not synagogues.

At last week's event, the Catholic youths sat at tables, with ceremonial foods set in front of them: matzo; charoset, a combination of apple, nuts, wine and cinnamon; horseradish; parsley; salt water; a roasted lamb shank bone; and a roasted egg. The males wore skullcaps that many Jews put on while praying.

Before the Seder began, Smith explained the significance of Passover from a Catholic perspective -- that as a Jew, Christ would have celebrated Passover and that the Last Supper was a Seder, something most students were not aware of. He pointed out that Catholics have adopted some of the symbols of Passover. For example, the four glasses of wine drunk at the Seder (at this one, the youths drank apple juice) became the chalice of wine that Catholics believe is the blood of Christ. Matzo is similar to the Communion wafer eaten at Mass.

In addition, according to the Passover story, when the Pharaoh refused to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, God rained down 10 plagues on the Egyptians. The 10th was the slaying of the first-born son. Jews placed lamb's blood on their doorways so the angel of death would know to pass them by.

Smith explained that the lamb was sacrificed so its blood would spare the Hebrew people in Egypt. "Early Christians identified Christ as the lamb being sacrificed," he said. "Christ becomes our paschal lamb."

Interfaith Seders are not unusual, and they come in many shapes and colors. Although one hope is that the Ner Tamid Seder will help demystify Judaism, what makes it different from other interfaith affairs, the rabbi said, is that the Catholic students are not paired with Jews. This gives students a chance to explore the similarities and differences between the religions in a more comfortable atmosphere.

"There is a conscious charge to do it for the Catholic community," Jeret said. "What it means for Catholics is the focus."

Michael Zapata, 18, said he was surprised by the similarities between the religions. "It gives me a different point of view," he said.

Andrew Knox, 15, said, "It gave me a better understanding of Jewish traditions and what influenced them."

But Jews still seemed a mystery to many of the students.

Edward Desouza, 14, said he hadn't known that the Old Testament is the Jewish holy book.

The group seemed surprised when Jeret told them there were just 13.2 million Jews in the world, compared with 1.2 billion Catholics and 1 billion to 1.5 billion Muslims. "I thought there would be more," said Joren Lagmay, 14.

For Bob Rothman, chairman of the Dawn Unity Group and a former Ner Tamid president, the Seder was a success.

"Part of the importance is having a priest explain to Catholic kids how this relates to their faith, that it is the Last Supper, the Jewishness of Jesus," he said. "This is why we do it. If people would understand that much, then we would be a lot closer together."


Sunday, April 5, 2009


by Rabbi Isaac Jeret

The Passover seder has evolved and changed throughout the ages. Many of us might not know that the "four questions" were originally "three questions," and one of the three -- preparation of the paschal lamb -- is no longer asked.

Until recently, most Jews read the same haggadah at their seders. Today, different denominations have published haggadahs that include new passages, omit older ones and rearrange the order. And many of us have created and printed personal haggadahs each year for our own family seders.

But the single greatest change to the seder in the American Jewish experience might be our prevailing focus on a more universal theme and message related to liberation.

Whereas the particular Jewish experience of subjugation and liberation was once the central expression of the seder, the persecution of others and their need for liberation has influenced the great majority of the changes to both the haggadah and the seder experience for American Jews.

In discussing this phenomenon with people planning seders over the last several years, they've often shared their concern that their non-Jewish guests or family members might feel excluded, if not offended, should their seders focus too much upon the historical Jewish experiences of subjugation and redemption or the threats facing Jews today. Some have shared that they omit entire passages in the traditional haggadah that reference the Jewish experience of persecution and liberation beyond that of the exodus from Egypt.

Ironically, I've found over the years that non-Jews attending seders come with the expectation, and often the hope, of experiencing a particularly Jewish occasion. When we opt to universalize the theme to the exclusion of the unique historical Jewish experience, we may be responding to our own discomfort with a particularized focus on our history of persecution or our desire to concern ourselves with the welfare of Jews living with less freedom than we might enjoy today. In doing so, we might be avoiding or even denying our own vulnerability, as a miniscule minority among the world's population.

Over the last several years, and this year in particular, world events leave us little room for such self-indulgence. While it is admirable indeed, and very much in keeping with fundamental Jewish values championing life and liberty, for us to be sure to include in our seders our commitment to the liberation of all human beings, Iran is only several months away from developing a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the State of Israel, home to the world's largest, youngest and only growing Jewish population. Iran's radical Islamic leadership has expressed openly its aim to wipe the State of Israel off the map and, if we do not act immediately and decisively, it will soon have the means to do so.

We can make a difference, even at this late hour. And we can start at our seders.

We can encourage our guests or our fellow attendees to become involved in a nationwide undertaking to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. We can begin by consulting the Web site of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at We can download and distribute at our seders, and to our friends and relatives nationwide for distribution at their seders, important background material on this issue and links to legislation pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate that deserve the strongest support of our representatives in Washington, D.C. Via the AIPAC Web site, we can all lobby our representatives to support these initiatives. Each of us, and all of our guests, should be encouraged to contact AIPAC's offices as soon as possible after the seder to learn how we can all be even more helpful in this sacred and urgent mission to keep the means to annihilate the State of Israel out of the hands of those who seek such an end.

As for our non-Jewish guests, wouldn't we be doing them a great disservice were we to ignore this issue at our seders as one of central concern to us as Jews? Shouldn't they know that both the painful and the miraculous lessons of our history help us determine when and how we must act in the name of Jewish self-preservation? If we reclaim our Passover priorities, priorities that demand our Jewish self-concern shamelessly when warranted, more than a few of our non-Jewish guests might well join with us in our urgent endeavor to keep Iran from harming our brothers and sisters in Israel. As we invite them to expand the base of support that will be required to ensure that Iran's aims are never achieved, we might well be surprised to learn just how much they may feel included in our seders, enlightening us about why they accepted our invitations to attend our seders in the first place.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, a warm and inclusive synagogue-community on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in Los Angeles, CA. For more information about Ner Tamid, call (310) 377-6986 or visit

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay