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Secular Jews Seek Ways to Refashion Ancient Passover Rituals

Holidays: Some replace traditional paeans to God with celebrations of the strength and courage of people.


Why is this Seder different from all other Seders?

At a Passover ritual feast near Griffith Park this week, the unleavened bread was laid out just as it has been for more than 3,000 years. The traditional songs were sung, the four questions asked about why Passover is different from all other nights as a gathering of 300 people celebrated the timeless story of the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery.

But there was one prominent omission from this particular Seder: paeans to God.

As the eight-day Passover holiday begins tonight, a community of secular Jews are joining the observances by refashioning the ancient rituals to celebrate not the power and mercy of God, but the strength and courage of people.

Passover's powerful themes of freedom and deliverance resonate so universally that scores of nonobservant Jews find deep meaning in the religious holiday--even without the religion.

Organizations of secular Jews are not large; the heyday of many such groups was in the 1920s and 1930s. Still, a 1997 study by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that 24% of Jews surveyed in the Los Angeles area said religion was of minimal or no significance to their lives, and 66% were not dues-paying members of any synagogue.

But even for many Jews with little formal connection to Judaism, the Seder feast has a strong tug. The Seder is the single most widely attended Jewish ritual among Jews and non-Jews, believers and atheists and those in between, according to Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

"Different aspects of Passover resonate with different people, but the themes of freedom and liberation make it the most accessible holiday to Jews and non-Jews alike," Wertheimer said.

The binding power of the Passover holiday was evident at a recent secular Seder sponsored by the Sholem Community Organization of Los Angeles. The organization runs a Jewish Sunday school and celebrates all major holidays in a secular fashion, believing that religion or spirituality is a private matter.

The majority of Jews who say religion is important in their lives may not feel comfortable with the Sholem approach or its interpretations of the sacred holiday.

"Taking God out of Passover is like taking Jesus out of Easter--what are you left with?" said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, acting director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "The message of Passover is rather clear, and that is that God wanted the Jewish people to be free."

Such disagreements, Sholem members say, are fine. To Hershl Hartman, who founded the Los Angeles group in 1966, the organization primarily seeks to provide a link to Jewish life for those who would otherwise fall into "nothingness."

Members include atheists like Jeffrey Kaye. There are "spiritual humanists" like Alan Blumenfeld, who says he believes in "some sense of supernatural being," and his wife, Katherine James, who calls herself a "pagan Christian." There are young and old, white and black and Asian; about half of Sholem's members are intermarried couples who say the group has welcomed them with open arms.

To Sholem members, Jewish identity is rooted not in religion but in a rich history, culture and tradition. The Sholem haggada, or Seder liturgy, is liberally sprinkled with Yiddish as well as Hebrew and offers scientific as well as traditional explanations for the ritual food: the bitter herbs, it says, are eaten not only to recall the bitterness of slavery but also because in former times such herbs would counteract the effects of spoiled food.

Elsewhere in the area, more traditional Passover observances will be taking place throughout the week.

On Tuesday, members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles sought to practice the Passover message of "Maot Chittim"--"All who are hungry, let them come and eat"--with free deliveries of special Passover meals.

In the Fairfax area, the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen handed out 1,000 meals and hosted an abbreviated Seder for seniors. The SOVA Kosher Pantry distributed food to 600 families, while the Jewish Family Service was planning to hold Seders for 1,500 families.

Rabbis are making the rounds, from prisons to hospitals, providing Passover services and food. And individuals are opening their homes to those with no place else to go for the biggest family dinner of the year. "I've got 35 to 40 people coming over tonight, and I don't even know all of them," said Jewish Federation President Todd Morgan.

Some celebrations are deeply religious, others are more in the nature of family reunions.

At Sholem, the emphasis is on celebrating a triumph of humanity.

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