HOT SPRINGS — A priest and a rabbi walked into the parish hall March 10 and instead of being the punch line, they were the set-up men — not for a joke, but rather to show the RCIA elect/candidates how the sacred Jewish tradition of the Passover Seder meal relates to our common religious history.
“The Seder meal is a sacred Jewish ritual and we do not want to be disrespectful of Jewish traditions. By inviting Rabbi Richard Chapin and Father George Sanders to teach this seminar, we are encouraging interfaith relationships as we gather around the table for conversation, light meal and wine, of course,” said David Peters, RCIA lay coordinator at St. Mary of the Springs Church in Hot Springs. “As Catholics, we can benefit by understanding and appreciating this celebration and use this experience to deepen our respect and gratitude to our Jewish community as well as our own faith.”
In Jewish tradition, the Seder meal is the beginning of Passover, held on the first or second evening. At the Seder, a community or family retells the Biblical account of the Exodus of Egypt, when the Israelites were liberated from their slavery. Each food item on the Seder plate is symbolic; participants eat and drink at specific times during the night (see sidebar).
Pastor Father Sanders said it was a great opportunity for those joining the Church at the Easter Vigil as well as parishioners to understand how the Catholic faith intersects with Judaism.
“For us it’s to celebrate a common root of our faith” in God, Father Sanders said. “Everything we learn here speaks to us.”
Rabbi Chapin of the Congregation House of Israel in Hot Springs, who led the Seder and had several people from the temple help in setting up the program, said the meal is a chance for Jewish families to teach the children about the Exodus in a fun, but sincere way.
“You must think of yourself as if you were a child going through the service. That you, male, female all of us together must feel as if we are going from bondage to freedom,” Rabbi Chapin said. “If you don’t appreciate the process and you don’t really think you’re in bondage, it doesn’t work … You get into the story and enjoy it, but you also have to suffer with it.”
Though the topic was about suffering, the mood was joyful, with attendees trying hard to pronounce Hebrew words correctly, singing traditional Hebrew songs and sipping from their red wine cups rather than polishing off four cups which is tradition, Rabbi Chapin pointed out.
“The idea is you’ll know Hebrew or be drunk before it,” Rabbi Chapin quipped to laughter from the crowd.
One of the most important symbols at a Seder is a fifth glass of wine that remains filled, the Cup of Elijah. Later in the Seder, a door is opened as an invitation for the prophet to enter.
“Elijah, it can’t be overstated how important he is,” Rabbi Chapin said. “We used to turn down the lights at our temple and kind of set a setting that is somewhat conducive to the mystical quality that Elijah really has and presents.”
It is the first time in recent memory that the church has hosted a Seder meal, Peters said. There are about 30 RCIA members this year, most of whom are Catholics continuing their faith education. Two will be joining the Church this Easter. About 150 parishioners from the church also attended to hear Rabbi Chapin speak.
“Jesus started out with the Passover and that’s how it got to the Last Supper,” Peters said. “Easter is not only about the death and Resurrection of Jesus but how it all started with the Last Supper. The high point of our Mass is (the Eucharist).”
RCIA elect Chloe McNeil said as a second grade teacher at Lakeside Intermediate School in Hot Springs, she appreciated how the Jewish tradition is really meant to share the faith with children.
“It’s interesting how they’re teaching the children to have appreciation for the past,” McNeil said, adding that learning about the specific Jewish symbols and traditions relates to her journey in RCIA. “In the Catholic Church, you’re learning all the history and traditions. They’re teaching us in the same way — why there are those traditions and symbols.”
For Fred Divers, RCIA candidate who is joining the Church after attending for more than 10 years with his wife Shelby, a cradle Catholic and their four daughters, said it was “fascinating” to attend the Seder meal.
“We read the stories of the Passover … but it sort of feels like you’re living it now,” Divers said. “You don’t really appreciate the history (in the Bible) until you sit down and pore through it.”
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