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Clergy, Residents Celebrate Passover Seder Together



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Guided by Rabbi Shaul Praver, members of the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association were joined by a few dozen members of the public for the 2015 Interfaith Seder on March 29. As he is known for doing, Rabbi Praver imbued the gathering with his wonderful sense of humor. He repeatedly drew laughter from everyone attending the special event, while also keeping a focus on the solemnity and importance of observing Passover, which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

This year’s Seder, which has been rotating among the town’s houses of worship in recent years, was hosted by Newtown Congregational Church. Rabbi Praver sat near the center of the head table, joined by fellow local clergy members in the public event: Pastor Kathie Adams-Shepherd, rector, Trinity Episcopal Church; Reverend Matthew Crebbin, senior pastor, Newtown Congregational Church; Reverend Caroline Hamilton-Arnold, transitional associate minister, Newtown Congregational Church; Reverend Mel Kawakami, senior pastor, Newtown United Methodist Church; Reverend Leo McIlrath, chaplain, The Lutheran Home of Southbury; Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church; and John Woodall, representing Bahá’í Faith of Newtown.

In welcoming guests, who were seated around smaller tables set up in the church’s Great Room, Rev Hamilton-Arnold said she and the other religious leaders were “excited to be here together, and to share this meal, and to learn more about each other.”

Seated to her left, Rev Crebbin added that Sunday’s was “an important faith tradition that also intersects, for many of us, with our own faith traditions in many ways.”

Sunday was Palm Sunday, which had been recognized in churches across town just hours earlier. Passover this year begins at sundown on Friday, April 3, between initial Good Friday observances and Easter Sunday.

Rabbi Praver pointed out that The Last Supper was a Passover meal.

“We are all branches of the same tree,” he said. “This is a celebration of freedom and liberty for all. A Seder is a celebration of the reconstitution of family.”

For that reason, he later explained, Seders are a celebration that is generally done in homes, not synagogues.

Each guest on Sunday had a Haggadah at their place setting. The hall had about a dozen round tables set up, each topped with a blue tablecloth and set up similarly. A Seder plate was at the center of each table, set with the six traditional items of bitter herbs (celery leaves and horseradish, in this case), charoset, parsley, a hard boiled egg, a roasted lamb shankbone, and, placed in front of the ceremonial plate, whole matzot. Small bowls with salt water, and pitchers of water and grape juice — the former serving as wine for the ceremonial meal — were also part of each table’s set-up, as was a candle.

The Seder formally began with the reading of a prayer in Hebrew by Rabbi Praver, and then continued in English by Pastor Adams-Shepherd. While this was happening, volunteers lit the candles on the tables.

For the next two hours, the group went through the traditional steps of a Seder. Bitter herbs were dipped in salt water while Rabbi Praver explained the significance the water representing the tears of Jews enslaved in Ancient Egypt.

Taking a bite of the first element of Sunday’s dinner, Jackson Pacchiana grimaced.

“Boy that’s really bitter, and salty,” he commented.

Sitting two seats over, his mother Miranda responded, “It gets the point across, doesn’t it?”

The timing of the Seder, said Mrs Pacchiana, was perfect. She homeschools her son, and the two of them have been studying world religions. Their recent focus, she said Sunday afternoon, has been Judaism. Adam Pacchiana joined his wife and son for the Seder, the first for the family.

Monsignor Weiss read The Story of Passover on Sunday, after which the celebration moved toward what Rabbi Shaver called “one of the thornier issues of the story.” While the next step in a Seder is to list the Ten Plagues, Rabbi Praver cautioned Sunday’s guests that it was not a time for celebration.

“We are taught: Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls,” he said. “It is not a happy occasion.”

He reminded attendees of the anger and hurt Americans felt when photographs were published after 9/11, purporting to be images of others celebrating in light of this country’s losses.

“And yet we continue to create these images,” he said, such as when Americans were in turn seen rejoicing after the death of Osama bin Laden.

The Seder did not include the Shulchan Orech, or the full Passover meal, which Rabbi Praver described as “usually being quite a spread” with the traditional gefilte fish and lamb, among other dishes. It did include each of the elements of Seders, including The Four Questions, the ritual washing of hands, breaking the middle matzah, eating the afikoman, a focus on children, the reading of psalms, the singing of songs, and a cup for Elijah and an invitation for the prophet to visit.

Elijah did appear on Sunday, looking very much like Newtown United Methodist Church Youth Leader Brandon Fox.

The first questions posed to the prophet were very light-hearted, with Rev McIlrath asking if we were done with snow for the season and Pastor Adams-Shepherd wondering if he saw his shadow.

Later, one guest asked what Elijah’s interpretation of mental illness is, within his faith, “in light of what happened here two years ago.”

“Elijah” thought carefully before responding that all men and women need an open mindset.

“We need to be more open to helping rather than stereotypes that will lead to these people being looked down upon,” he said.

A short while later, Rabbi Praver returned to the question, telling those in attendance that “we have to hold together.

“There is a lot of pulling away and the truth is, it takes a lot of love,” he said. “Redemption starts with forgiveness. Serious, civil conversation, with respect. What we see out there is not conversation, what we see is pontification.”

As the celebration came to an end, the 51 attendees joined the local clergy to close with another tradition, saying “Next year in Jerusalem,” before Rabbi Praver encouraged, “Let’s all go from this Seder and try to do better.”

Elijah’s cup was filled at each table. When he arrived (below), the prophet answered questions both humorous and serious from the afternoon’s guests.
Adam and Miranda Pacchiana lay their hands on their son Jackson, while Mrs Pacchiana also keeps one hand on the Haggadah, during Sunday’s Seder. Jackson was one of three young adults and children at the event.
Rabbi Praver singing Birkat Hamazon (blessing of the nourishment), with Rev Kawakami, from Newtown United Methodist Church, on the left.
From left is Sharon Cohen, Tracy Benham, Marcia Cohen, and Pastor Martha Epstein, singing about The Four Questions.
Seated at the head table for the Interfaith Seder, as seen during a ceremonial washing of their hands, from left, were Monsignor Robert Weiss, Reverend Leo McIlrath, Reverend Mel Kawakami, Rabbi Shaul Praver, Pastor Kathie Adams-Shepherd, John Woodall, Reverend Caroline Hamilton-Arnold, and Reverend Matthew Crebbin. 
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