A multi-faith community seder breaks bread, builds relationships


Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 3:35 p.m.

Believers of Allah, Jesus Christ and Adonai, the Hebrew word for God, will gather on Monday for an anything-but-traditional Passover seder.

Facts

If you go

What: Children of Abraham Passover Seder
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Highlands Presbyterian Church, 1001 NE 16th Ave.
Contact: For more information or to RSVP, call 374-4478 or send an email to denshuman@bellsouth.net

Organizers of the interfaith seder, which will be held at the Highlands Presbyterian Church at 6 p.m. Monday, hope to unite followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, said Dennis Shuman, event organizer and founder of P'nai Or, Gainesville's Jewish Renewal Congregation.

Shuman calls the celebration the Children of Abraham Passover Seder because Abraham, the founding father of the Israelites, also has a prominent role in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The event is open to people of all religious backgrounds, and to those who belong to no formal religion.

The event is limited to 140 people due to the church's capacity, said Shuman, who added he wishes more people could come.

"It's tricky to have a limited seder," Shuman said. "It's the exact opposite of what we're told to do."

Traditionally, the Haggadah, which is the text that details the story of Passover, says "let anyone who is hungry come eat with us."

The idea for the seder began as a counter statement to the 2008 bombings in Gaza, Shuman said.

The following year, he hosted a small event attended by 30 to 40 people in response to the international dispute.

He said he decided to host an event this year because of the current situation in the Middle East.

Thinking globally but acting locally is his personal civic responsibility, Shuman said.

"Bringing together people of different religions and cultures, having them share a spiritual experience that's relative to their lives seems to me like a positive thing to do in the world," he said.

This year, there will be assigned seats.

Each round table of eight will seat people from different backgrounds to encourage new friendships and to prevent followers of each religion from clustering.

Shuman said he has attended interfaith programs that preach tolerance but fail to spark friendship.

The event hopes to fend off triumphalism, a phenomenon that refers to a sense of religious superiority, by avoiding the use of the word "god" in his version of the Haggadah, Shuman said.

A blank space is used in place of the word.

"People can fill the blank with whatever they believe in," he said, "So they don't feel like they're praying to someone else's god."

The Passover Seder is traditionally a family event and not meant to be celebrated on a large scale, so the seder's size called for other adaptations.

The most radical, Shuman said, is his altering of the Haggadah.

The new, progressive Haggadah features scripts from both the Quran and the Torah, said Saeed Khan, a Muslim from India who is helping to organize the seder.

Many people don't know that the story of the Pharaoh's oppression is included in both religious texts.

Muslim prayers, called the "maghrib prayers," are traditionally recited during the time of Passover.

These passages as well as the usual Jewish prayers will be read in both Hebrew and Arabic.

Another facet of the seder is the potluck, Khan said.

To make things more inclusive for observers of kosher or halal lifestyles, the whole meal will be vegetarian.

Also, because it is against the Islamic faith to drink alcohol, grape juice will be served instead of wine.

"That was the amazing thing," Khan said. "Muslims and Jews are making concessions for each other. This give and take is what coming together means."

The Children of Abraham Passover Seder also differs from the standard because it is for adults only, Shuman said.

Children play an important part in the Passover Seder.

It is the youngest child's role to sing "Ma Nishtana," a prayer referred to in English as the "Four Questions," which asks why Passover is different from any other night.

Children also have the responsibility of finding the afikoman, a large piece of matzah that is hidden by the head of the household.

In some families, it is customary for children to steal the afikoman and to receive a reward after its return.

Instead of the traditions that include children, Shuman said he plans to hold introspective discussions.

For example, the Four Questions will be a platform for people to discuss their most profound four questions of the year.

"It's not about teaching people Judaism," he said. "It's about transforming a Jewish event into a more universal event."

The most conventional aspect of the seder is the basic structure of the seder plate, Shuman said, because its themes — springtime renewal and oppression — can be understood on a broad level.

Jack Donovan, the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian which is sponsoring the event, said Christians have a connection to Passover because of the The Last Supper, the final meal — a Passover Seder — that Jesus shared with his apostles before his crucifixion.

It was during this time that Jesus made his last journey to Jerusalem and along the way had preached about an individual's responsibility to tend to the community.

Donovan said he believes this "communal trip to salvation," as he calls it, is the point of coming together and discovering people are more alike than one may originally think.

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