RJA welcomes Catholic students for seder


For most of the fifth grade students that walked off the yellow school bus in front of the Saul Mirowitz Day School — Reform Jewish Academy last week, it was their first visit to a Jewish Day School.

The students were visiting from St. Clare Catholic School in O’Fallon, Ill., to share in a model seder with RJA’s fourth-and fifth-grade students.

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The 80 students from St. Clare and RJA sat down together at tables with a seder plate and Haggadot for each student.

This was the second year of the shared seder. Last year, RJA students, parents and teachers traveled to O’Fallon to hold the seder. This year, the St. Clare students made the trek across the river.

SMDS-RJA fourth grade teacher Paula Hertel led the students in an interactive and (judging by the students’ smiles and laughter) fun seder that taught the St. Clare students about the tradition, and the symbolism behind the event.

Individual students read portions of the Haggadah as Hertel, SMDS-RJA Head of School Philip Dickstein and students answered the St. Clare children’s questions about Passover.

Diane Overmann, a fifth grade teacher at St. Clare, said she approached SMDS-RJA about having the shared seder last year. Overmann had previously held a model seder for third-grade students at her school, but hoped to find a way that students could learn about Passover by experiencing a seder with Jewish students.

Overmann said she taught students about Passover before their trip to SMDS-RJA.

“I wanted the children to learn about other traditions, and build bridges,” Overmann said. “These children all come from Illinois in the Belleville area and they don’t have much exposure to the Jewish people.”

“This helps the children get an understanding of the roots of our faith, which are based in Jewish traditions. And I think they also get know abut the commonness of our God, about how we all worship the same God, and how we can respect each other and come together and share traditions together and find out more about our unity,” she said.

Hertel, who said she has led outreach seders at Christian churches with her husband through her congregation, Congregation Shaare Emeth, said when SMDS-RJA was asked about having a seder with students from St. Clare, she jumped at the opportunity.

“We’re a small school, so for us to reach out and share our religion with another religion is special for us,” Hertel said. “These people came to us, looking for a way to share. And our kids have really enjoyed the experience.”

For St. Clare student John Fair, he said that while he learned a bit about Passover during the seder his teacher led when he was in fifth grade, the seder at SMDS-RJA was “really different.” Although Fair said he enjoyed the matzah, the horseradish wasn’t exactly to his liking.

The students from St. Clare also had the opportunity to visit the sanctuary of B’nai El Congregation and ask Rabbi Daniel Plotkin questions about Judaism.

“What is that you’re wearing on your head?” asked one St. Clare student, about Rabbi Plotkin’s kipa. “Another asked, ‘What do the priests wear?'”

Plotkin spoke about the rabbi’s role, and about items in the sanctuary, including the ark, the Torah, and the ner tamid.

After the seder and the tour, the students were able to enjoy a recess together on the SMDS-RJA playground.

As the children played together, Overmann noted how quickly students from the two schools had become friends.

“If you watch them, they are just interacting, having fun. Children naturally build those bridges,” she said. “It’s just as adults that we tend to pull away from each other.”

Or as Kathy Houston, a St. Clare teaching assistant, observed: “The children of the world can really teach us something.”