B’nai Amoona opens doors for second-night seder

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Passover seders certainly aren’t out of the ordinary this time of year but for Congregation B’nai Amoona, the guest list for the holiday gathering did include a few more names than usual.

“This was a remarkably powerful experience, something quite unique,” said Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose. “They had a very traditional Conservative seder. The people were very into the ritual, very mesmerized and very participatory.”

Yet many of the participants weren’t Jewish. The shul opened up the event to a number of guests from other religious communities. Christians, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims and Baha’is were all represented at the meal, which consumed about three hours on the evening of the second night of the holiday, March 26.

Sponsored by Maryville and Webster universities, the gathering also received grant support from various sources including backing from the Staenberg Family Foundation and the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program.

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Rose said there were a number of individuals who were interested in the multicultural learning experience.

“I was receiving many, many phone calls from members of the interfaith community interested in participating in Passover and asking me questions about Passover and how it would be done, asking about the possibility of model seders or mock seders,” he said.

But Rose felt that things could be condensed down to a simpler idea.

“As I’ve thought about it over the years, I’ve gotten to a place of saying rather than do these mock ideas, why don’t we invite people to participate in the seder that we have here?” he said.

Phyllis Cantor, the synagogue’s social action chair, was the driving force behind the event and said Rose was supportive from the moment she suggested it.

“I don’t think B’nai Amoona has ever reached out and invited people of other faiths,” she said. “They were invited not just because they were good friends but because they were people of other faiths who might enjoy our seder.”

Cantor said many of the participants were individuals she had met through interfaith or social action efforts in which she had participated. Contingents didn’t just come from different parts of the theological spectrum but also from other nations including teenage participants in an intercultural program that included individuals from Turkey, Pakistan, Thailand and other nations.

“We had kids from all over the world including kids from Egypt and a kid who identified himself as from Palestine, from Ramallah,” said Rose. “They came with their host families as well. They had heard about this experience and wanted these young people to have a little bit of exposure.”

Rose noted that the evening featured not just food but also singing and dancing. Many participants even remained after the meal was over.

“There were people who wanted to study more together so we had a series of breakout sessions that followed,” he said. “It was fantastic.”

Cantor said that she heard many questions from members of other faith communities and enjoyed the opportunity to promote tolerance.

“I thought that one of the ways for our world to get together is for us to understand one another. Having them come to the seder was a great way to do that,” she said. “They were grateful to be invited and happy to be there.”

There was also a chance to educate other participants on Judaic culture and beliefs.

“Many of them, for the very first time, they had a chance to try out gefilte fish and matzah balls,” she said.

Glyndola Propst, a Pentecostal Christian attended with her husband Brian.

“It’s a time for new birth and a time to start freedom again,” said the Arnold resident. “I enjoyed being with the people. I enjoyed getting to know a little bit about the customs of Passover and what it involves. I was familiar with the story but I wasn’t familiar with the way that one celebrates it.”

She said the event helped her to understand more about her own faith.

“Because Christianity comes from Judaism…you gain more of a grasp of how the traditions came about and how they are celebrated now,” said Propst.

Roberta Duyff, a volunteer with AFS Intercultural Programs, was in charge of the contingent of six teenagers from other nations who participated, most of them Muslim.

“I’ve said to the students many times that our traditions in terms of spirituality have much in common, more than we sometimes realize,” said Duyff. “This was a chance to share the joy of what Passover is but also to have a different understanding of its meaning.”

She said the impromptu session after the seder was especially meaningful.

“We spent quite a bit of time with two of the kids afterwards, trying to connect the dots between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and see where in the sacred books of all three faiths there are common messages and common story,” she said.

Rose felt the event was a clear success.

“We’re already planning for next year,” he said.