Summit Jews, Episcopalians find common ground at interfaith seder

Summit Jews, Episcopalians find common ground at interfaith seder

The night of March 22 was different from all other nights at Calvary Episcopal Church in Summit.


Because 70 members of its congregation played host to Rabbi Avi Friedman, religious leader of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center, who led a seder in the church’s parish hall.

Rev. Canon Matthew T.L. Corkern, rector of the church, told NJJN that while some non-Jews consider Passover to be the “Jewish” Easter, it is the other way around. 

“Easter is the Christian Passover,” he said. “We are very connected all the way back to our original roots.”

Both congregations’ leaders had taken part in interfaith seders before assuming their pulpits in Summit, but 2018 marks the first local collaboration. 

Friedman said he hoped the evening “would bring about some better understanding of our common roots and hopefully dispel some misunderstandings people have about one another’s faiths.

“Easter and Passover are both about redemption,” the rabbi said. “That is a message that resonates across religious lines. There is always the possibility of a better day, a better time.”  

Corkern said his congregation embraces freedom and thinks about “who we are today” while “walking in the footsteps of our ancestors through the wilderness.”  

With grape juice substituted for the traditional sweet, red wine, Friedman invited people to pour small portions into their plastic cups and say “l’chaim” after he recited the blessing. “I know some of you have heard the word on Broadway,” he said, referring to the song “To Life!,” one of the better-known hits from the “Fiddler on the Roof” soundtrack.

Holding aloft a sprig of parsley, the rabbi said it represented “a spring festival, and it is kind of of hard to talk about when just this morning I was shoveling snow in my driveway.” He asked people to dip their pieces of parsley into salt water as a symbolic combination of joy and tears.

He also instructed church members on proper seder form. “On this night we recline,” he said. “If you sit up and have good posture, you’ve got it all wrong.”

Though he mainly kept to the standard structure of the seder, Friedman accidentally broke a matzah into three pieces instead of dividing it in half, as part of Yachatz, and begged his audience not to “turn me in to the matzah police.”

Then he hid one piece in an embroidered bag and explained it would be hidden for the children to find, noting “we cannot complete the seder until we eat from the matzah that has been hidden. We think children’s attention issues are modern issues, but the ancient rabbis created this game in order to keep kids tuned in to the seder.”

Friedman recruited three children — Annabel, 8, Alexander, 11, and Matthew, 13 — to read the Four Questions in English, and recounted how he was called upon in his parent’s home to ask the Four Questions every year until graduate school. “Then my father looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you’re in rabbinical school. You lead the seder.’”

Turning to a portion of the service entitled “The Four Children,” the rabbi said, “it is sometimes called ‘The Four Sons.’ It depends on whether you like the old sexist text or your like to be more modern and inclusive.”

He said the rabbis of yore believed there were four kinds of children — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask — and each one learned differently. “Sounds like a modern idea, but it is really a very old one.” 

At the point where fingers are dipped in grape juice 10 times to symbolize the bloodshed as a result of the Ten Plagues, the rabbi said, “even if they are bad guys we wanted to see defeated, their suffering diminishes our happiness.” 

Still, addressing the children, Friedman said, “Kids, you are going to like this. You are going to make a mess.” 

He said the original matzah was soft, and the modern, solid variety “was actually an invention of the Manischewitz family in the late 19th century as part of the Industrial Revolution to enable easier shipment from its New York factory to other parts of the country. A soft matzah would invite mold and other contamination, but a hard matzah would survive nuclear war, so we are stuck with that, for better or for worse.”

Winding down the ceremony with more blessings over the food, he asked “the bartender at each table” to refill the glasses of grape juice. Then, as a back door of the room was open for the prophet Elijah, the rabbi noted another similarity between Christian and Jewish traditions. “We believe that one day at the end of the Sabbath, Elijah the prophet will arrive with the Messiah…So, you can see how when the first Christians started following Jesus and believed him to be the messiah, they turned Sunday into the Lord’s day. 

“Whether you are waiting for the messiah to come the first time or the second time, we have a lot more in common than we have that is different.”

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