NEW YORK, April 16 (JTA) — Cincinnati’s Jews are explaining to their Christian neighbors why seder nights are different from all other nights.
It’s part of an effort to fight the answers given them by “messianic Jews” who have sponsored “model seders” that explain the Passover symbols as evidence of their belief that Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah.
Cincinnati’s Jewish Community Relations Council recently performed model seders for area churches in a venture dubbed “The Passover Project.” Almost 60 seders were conducted, and their popularity forced leaders to place congregations on a waiting list until next year.
“This was a chance for the Jewish community to do community relations,” said Rabbi Robert Barr, who conceived the idea for the project.
Barr, a rabbi at Cincinnati’s Congregation Beth Adam, views the project as an opportunity to dispel misconceptions some Christians have about Passover because of the spin “messianic Jews” have put on the holiday. They teach, for example, that the ridges on matzah represent Jesus’ wounds during the crucifixion and that the three matzahs of the seder symbolize the Christian Trinity.
“Increased outreach of the messianic community made us realize we had to be a little more pro-active,” said Alice Abrams, associate director of the JCRC. “We felt it was important to let the Christian community know about Pesach from a Jewish perspective.”
Experts trained seder leaders for the project, which was sponsored by organizations including the JCRC and Congregation Beth Adam, to handle topics including the origins, history and rituals of the seder and to answer such questions as “Was the Last Supper a seder?”
“The idea of community outreach from someone who knows the history and traditions of a seder appealed to me,” said David Feldstein, a financial planner for American Express who co-chaired two seders after participating in the 10-hour training program. Feldstein, a member of a Reform congregation, has attended seders his entire life and has been leading his own family’s for three years.
He said participants felt the program was “entertaining and educational,” but many “didn’t know enough to ask” questions. The questions that did surface mostly surrounded issues of kashrut and the forbiddance of chametz, or bread products. Feldstein also broached the issue of the Last Supper, referring to recent scholarship that dismisses the notion of it being a seder.
“They didn’t seem offended,” he said, but noted that he lectured to religiously liberal groups. Feldstein was subsequently invited back to a retirement community, site of his second seder, for a lecture on Jewish holidays to be given in September.
“I don’t think there’s nearly enough dialogue between people who have different outlooks and perspectives on the world,” said Shelley Cowan, a member of Barr’s congregation who also helped run seders.
Cowan, a writer, conducted seders for two predominantly black fundamentalist churches. Calling Cincinnati “diversity challenged,” she said feedback from church congregants was “terrific” in light of the fact that it was probably the first conscious interaction between those church members and Jews.
“Themes of slavery and freedom really resonate there,” she said of their connection with the essence of Passover. “I think people found the words to be very moving.”
Cowan said her seders emphasized Jewish symbolism and made clear that Christian references were not considered part of the Passover story. When asked by the church leader if Judaism considers “messianic Jews” to be Jews, Cowan and her partner answered that they were not.
“I don’t think we were there to change anyone’s beliefs,” she said. “Just to share.”
The Passover Project’s popularity resulted in radio interviews with Barr and invitations to churches for next year.
“It’s not just the holiday we’re dealing with,” said Barr. “In the end, I hope they have a better understanding of Judaism too.”