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Passover, Potlucks and Plagues

For 27 years, Temple Beth Hillel has held a camping Seder for the Jewish holiday. Wind, heat or thunderstorms have given the events a near-biblical feel.

April 17, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Temple Beth Hillel's annual Passover trek to the desert has often found itself, well, plagued.

One year, wind so pelted campers that they circled their RVs for protection. During another, Rabbi Jim Kaufman had to halt the communal Seder because gusts were shredding tents and tablecloths.

The most dramatic incident for the Los Angeles congregation was the Passover when pounding rain forced several hundred parents and kids to flee to a Holiday Inn, where they marked one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in the hotel's main ballroom.

This blend of camping and ceremony was commemorated in T-shirts for the participants:

"I Survived Temple Beth Hillel's Seder in the Desert."

The latest installment, which wrapped up Sunday at the relatively lush Yucaipa Regional Park, was nearly canceled because of looming thunderclouds, and the few campers who huddled in tents Friday night got drenched.

But the Seder persevered with the levity needed to pull off a ritual-packed, 174-person event miles from kosher delis -- but not terribly far from a Starbucks.

As Kaufman, 61, a former civil rights activist whom some congregants refer to as "our hippie rabbi" explained: "It's hard to reach God in a building."

The campground seemed an appropriate setting, as the eight-day Passover observance, which ends this week, commemorates the biblical story of the ancient Hebrews escaping the Egyptians by trekking through sand dunes.

Moses demanded his people's freedom from the pharaoh, who ignored Moses' warnings that God would punish the Egyptians if their ruler didn't comply.

Ten plagues followed, including lice, locusts, darkness and the slaying of first-born children, which the Israelites avoided by marking their homes with lamb's blood.

The pharaoh liberated the slaves, but then reneged on the deal and shipped out his army, which pursued the Israelites through the desert and cornered them at the Red Sea.

Its waters miraculously split, allowing the Israelites to cross safely -- a story made famous in the movie "The Ten Commandments."

Despite its brutal narrative, Passover is marked with cheer to enchant children with the Jewish faith -- a spirit that has infused the Valley Village temple's commemoration since its beginning.

Kaufman borrowed the idea from a Los Angeles temple that ran a similar, smaller-scale event.

He pictured a camp-out for 10 to 12 families in San Bernardino County.

The Seder's original location was near Calico Ghost Town. Jane Ulman, 57, recalled driving from Encino years ago with her husband and four boys to a barren site; the temperature shot to triple digits, and the Passover pancakes were sprinkled with dust. Kids felt woozy, and she recalled at least one child throwing up.

"It was our own little plague we caught," she said last week while whipping up brisket and matzo soup.

The desert Seder has since hopped around Southern California -- one campsite fell out of contention because of ants -- and swelled to such a crowd that this year's ceremony required renting two giant barbecue grills, 33 tables and 200 chairs.

"Let me just say this," Ulman deadpanned in a story she wrote for a Jewish news service, "until you've eaten a matzo kugel that's sat on the bottom of an ice chest for 36 hours and been reheated on a Coleman camp stove, you've never truly suffered."

Kaufman intends for the desert Seders to reach 40, noting the number of years the Israelites are said to have trudged through the Sinai wilderness.

To attend the 27th installment -- "13 to Go!" said the sign-up sheet -- Bruce Shutan slumped in his car seat as he drove Friday night from West Hollywood to the park near the San Bernardino Mountains.

"It was very apropos: Moses and his people wandered through the desert; I wandered on the L.A. freeways for six hours. Probably like my ancestors, I was so relieved to see the promised land, though it's Yucaipa," he said.

It took Shutan, 45, an hour to pitch his tent in the rain, as other families swung U-turns at the park gate and escaped to hotels in nearby Redlands and Calimesa.

The next afternoon, only sunshine soaked the congregation as it marked Passover with a potluck meal on Dixie cups and paper plates.

Members nibbled on traditional foods such as matzo -- hard crackers that the Israelites baked in the desert sun -- which campers later used to toast kosher s'mores.

Matzo pieces wrapped in napkins, hidden and searched for at the Seder's end -- the afikomen -- were stowed near a restroom and behind an RV license plate.

"It certainly feels more like the desert than when you're sitting at the dinner table and eating on china," said Dana Sapper, 38, bundled in a sweatshirt and ski cap and percolating coffee on a portable stove.

Kaufman, strumming a guitar, and Rabbi Sarah Hronsky led the crowd in a sing-along Haggadah, which describes the exodus from slavery.

In between calls to action -- this year's cause is halting genocide in Darfur -- Kaufman belted out Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and kids bounced on the grass to mimic frogs hopping on the plagued pharaoh's head.

In fact, much of the Seder was summed up in song, with a campfire talent show, a lyrical close to the Sabbath and a recording Kaufman played on a night so frigid that kids draped themselves in quilts.

The title, which brought a roar from the crowd: "Jews Don't Camp."

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