- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Some in this assorted group of 60 Christians, Muslims and Jews who have come together in early April for Georgetown University's 33rd annual Interfaith Passover Seder stumble over the unfamiliar words.Others find a familiar ritual filled with unfamiliar moments, as when a Jesuit priest stands to give testimony to the commitment of Jesus and a Muslim imam rises to speak about giving up selfishness and tribalism to the greater glory of God.

Despite their differences, group members among them Georgetown's Jewish, Protestant and Muslim chaplains; a Jesuit priest; women in head scarves who identify themselves as Muslims; interfaith couples; a Mormon couple; Jewish students who have brought along Christian roommates; an Asian woman; and the incoming president of the Jewish Student Association, who identifies as Jewish and black look for common ground to stand together.

On the surface, Passover and Easter would seem to be the most separate of holidays. Yet throughout the Washington area during this holiday season, the faithful in churches, synagogues and mosques are throwing open their doors to those whose beliefs differ markedly from their own.

And they're not proselytizing.

"At Georgetown, this comes out of the heart of our mission," says the Rev. Scott Pilarz, university chaplain and professor of English. "We think people grow best if they are rubbing shoulders and matching wits with people who are not like themselves."

So when Jews invite Christians to sit down with them at a Passover Seder, they do it because they believe the old rituals inherent in the service carry with them a universal message of freedom, democracy and peace.

"We speak of the redemptive power of collective memory," says Rabbi Harold White, senior Jewish chaplain at Georgetown. "Imagining ourselves as having been slaves and been liberated will lead us to have empathy for anyone who has been enslaved."

For some of the same reasons, many Christian churches invite Jews to celebrate a Seder service. In one week alone, the 70-year-old Rabbi White celebrated Seders at two Catholic churches, an Episcopal church and a historically black church on Capitol Hill where the Seder songs were sung by a gospel choir.

"The wonderful part of this is a universalistic appeal of a particularistic story," says Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation on Macomb Street in Northwest, who has celebrated Seders with members of the St. Alban's and Annunciation congregations, nearby Episcopal and Roman Catholic communities, respectively.

•••

To be sure, much about the Passover ritual can seem foreign to many non-Jews. The use of Hebrew, the presence of unfamiliar foods and a ritual that at times seems half a game and at other times deadly serious can bemuse an onlooker accustomed to a very different setting for worship.

It seems foreign, perhaps, until someone explains the symbolism. Eggs and greens are used to remind celebrants of sacrifice and springtime. Foods such as haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts and wine) and morar (so-called "bitter herbs" such as horseradish or romaine lettuce) recall the struggle for freedom and the bitterness of slavery. Games such as hiding the flat, unleavened matzo bread are designed to keep young children awake and invested in the Passover story.

Of course, the real work of getting along with people of other faiths meaningful and true dialogue with consequences is infinitely more difficult than simply sharing a meal.

"We do have differences, but we have many similarities which outnumber our differences," says Imam Yahya Hendi, chaplain to Georgetown's 450 to 500 Muslim students. "We can use those similarities to bring peace to the world."

Georgetown boasts the largest campus ministry of any Catholic college in the United States. With the appointment of Rabbi White in 1968, Georgetown, which has about 1,700 Jewish students (including graduate, law, and medical students) became the first Catholic university with a full-time rabbi. With the appointment of Imam Hendi four year ago, it became the first American university with a full-time Muslim chaplain.

"We have big issues to deal with," says Yossi Shain, a professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown. "We want to try to bring people together in an open and frank dialogue. For years, we in the United States did not have an open and frank dialogue people did not want to discuss things because they were not seen to be politically correct."

Recently, Georgetown University established the Elie and Marion Wiesel Chair in Jewish Civilization, the first step in setting up a new Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization planned for the university.

Scholars at the center will spend much of their time exploring common ground, along with topics particular to Judaism and Jewish history.

"We can think at different levels," maintains the Rev. Ladislas Orsy, visiting professor of law at Georgetown, speaking at a recent panel exploring Catholic-Jewish relations. "We must speak of tolerance, but we need to go beyond tolerance, beyond friendly negotiations."

"Democracy, liberalism, tolerance and the rule of law" Mr. Shain says. "These are things we are all committed to."

•••

Commitment is also the watchword at All Souls Church, Unitarian, on 16th Street NW. Elements of many traditions Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and American Indian, to name a few are brought together in each Sunday's service.

"One thing that Unitarians hold dear is the individual person's search for truth and meaning," says the Rev. Robert Hardies, senior minister at All Souls. "God's revelation can reveal itself in surprising and unexpected ways."

Drawing upon different traditions comes naturally to Mr. Hardies, whose congregants celebrate a Passover Seder, come to special services for Good Friday and turn out in all their finery for Easter.

"It's important to learn from one another," Mr. Hardies says. "What we find when we get past talking about theology and belief is the experience of the holy and the experience of spiritual life that's common ground."

•••

The Freedom Seder at Washington Hebrew Congregation grew out of the popular interfaith celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, which draws a number of participants from predominantly black congregations throughout the Washington area.

"There is a long history in our congregation of working strongly with African-American churches," Rabbi Lustig says. "It has been a tremendous bridge for understanding and openness."

Last year's Seder, for example, included readings from King's speeches. Two years ago, Rabbi Lustig began to include members of the Muslim community in the annual service.

"After 9/11, I felt it was important to reach out to each other and support each other," Rabbi Lustig says. "This year, the whole concept of the Freedom Seder becomes even more imperative for us to share and be together."

This year's Freedom Seder will be held next Wednesday. According to Joan Greenbaum, the layperson in charge of the Freedom Seder, Washington Hebrew typically invites 10 to 15 outside churches and other guests. About 300 people participated last year, about half of whom were from Washington Hebrew.

This year, however, not everyone who has been invited is planning to go.

"My stand is, if I cannot mention Jesus, I don't want to be involved," says the Rev. Melvin Brown, pastor of the Greater New Hope Baptist Church downtown. "Jesus is the reason we celebrate."

Unlike the interfaith Seder at Georgetown, Washington Hebrew Congregation's Freedom Seder makes no mention of Jesus.

The war in Iraq also helped shape his decision to decline the invitation, Mr. Brown says.

"We have a problem with people not standing up for peace," says the Harvard-educated minister. "This war is driven by arrogance, greed and cultural hatred. This year, we're going to focus on the need for peace."

Does the focus on peace extend to sitting down with the members of Washington Hebrew?

"Not this year," Mr. Brown says. "Our focus is on Jesus and the Easter season."

Ironically, Greater New Hope Baptist is housed in the original Washington Hebrew Congregation building in the old Seventh Street neighborhood downtown. For years, the church participated in the Jewish congregation's annual interfaith King concert.

A Passover Seder is a different thing, Mr. Brown says. He attended the Freedom Seder last year but did not feel he was an equal participant in the service.

"It's balanced to their view of things," he says. "The emphasis is very rich, but it doesn't apply to where we are. I don't see the need to participate in it every year."

•••

For many members of Washington Hebrew Congregation, however, the message of Passover neither begins nor ends with the meal. The congregation is involved in various outreach programs in the city, including its annual Mitzvah Day, which has become a model for other Jewish congregations around the nation.

Simply put, Mitzvah Day is a day of service.

On April 6, for their part of Mitzvah Day, nearly 40 families from Washington Hebrew Congregation went to the Abram Simon Elementary School in Southeast to help paint murals, play soccer, spruce up the library and enjoy arts and crafts with many of the school's pupils.

"The Freedom Seder is when we talk the talk," Rabbi Lustig says, "but this is when we walk the walk."

The school is named for Abram Simon, who was senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew from 1904 to 1938 and served as president of the D.C. School Board for several terms in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The relationship between the congregation and the school extends far beyond the annual Mitzvah Day, however. For the past 10 years, members of the congregation have been involved in everything from reading to classes to establishing partnering relationships between families.

Every year, coordinator Niki Moch has worked to "step up" the intensity of the partnership program. From guest readers, she moved to revamping the library the school had no books published after 1974 and installing computers.

"First I wanted to keep the kids excited about reading," says Mrs. Moch, who is at the school at least three times a week. "Now we're working into more of a network thing."

The "network thing" means that some families travel back and forth to one another's homes for dinner. They take field trips together. And when one congregation member, a dentist, realized that many of the students needed dental care, he organized his colleagues at the District of Columbia Dental Society. They responded with a day of teeth cleanings for every student in the school.

"They've been an absolute godsend to us," say Duane Ross, in his second year as principal at Abram Simon. "We've been able to do all kinds of extracurricular activities. And they still ask, 'What can we do?' "

In response, the school community turned out in force for Mitzvah Day and for Mrs. Moch.

Youngsters crowded around to get temporary tattoos or do spin art. Mothers helped with stringing beads. Down in the cafeteria, fathers worked to paint brightly colored fruits and vegetables on once-dingy walls. In the gym, Abram Simon fifth-graders worked with Washington Hebrew youngsters to create a mural based on their favorite books all under the watchful eye of artist Gary Goldberg.

"Nothing is better than Niki," says Linda Coates, a third-grade teacher with more than 30 years of experience in the D.C. Public Schools. "This is the first time in my history that I've actually seen a partnership work like this one. If the partnership can come in on a Sunday, so can I."

So, does it matter that the economic differences are great or that Washington Hebrew is located all the way on the other side of town? And what about the differences in faiths?

"You can't beat love," Mrs. Coates says. "It's more than you believe one thing and I believe another. There's common ground to all religions."


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