Jews throughout Southern California marked the beginning of the eight-day Passover observance at sundown Saturday at traditional Seders, or ritual meals, that recounted the ancient biblical story of the Exodus of Jews from Egypt.
Although most celebrated the holiday at home with family and friends, about 200 Jews gathered at a West Hills temple for a community Seder honoring Northridge earthquake victims.
"Passover is a season of rebirth and renewal for us in two ways this year," said Rabbi Harold Caminker of Temple Solael. "We want to express our hope that there will be peace between Israel and her neighbors and pray to Mother Nature after that jolt she gave us."
Caminker said many in his congregation were affected by the Jan. 17 quake and this Passover serves as a special reminder to them about the wonders of their God.
Madelon Cohen, 68, said the dining room of her Woodland Hills home was severely damaged in the earthquake, forcing her to cancel her traditional home Seder.
"My dining room wall is caving in and it just wasn't safe to have 30 people come over," Cohen said, as she held her 2-year-old grandson's hand. "But I am grateful to be here. Solael is my temple and my home."
The Seder begins as two candles are lit and the story of the Israelites' deliverance from Egyptian bondage is read from the Haggada.
Symbolic food is laid out on a platter--a roasted lamb shank that symbolizes the lamb sacrificed on the eve of the Exodus; a roasted egg, which is a temple sacrifice made on all holidays; bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness of the Jews' slavery in Egypt, and a mixture of ground apples, nuts and wine symbolizing the mortar out of which the slaves made bricks. The last food is parsley, a sign of spring or rebirth.
A stack of matzo, or unleavened bread, is placed beside the platter, representing the haste in which the Israelites left Egypt, and a dish of saltwater for dipping is provided, signifying the tears of the oppressed.
For young Jews such as Rachel Caminker, 10, the Seder is a time to be with family and friends. Although Passover is her favorite holiday because of the stories read from the Haggada, Caminker had one complaint. "I don't like the part about not eating any bread for seven days," the rabbi's daughter said. "It's too long."
In Reseda, the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging also held a community Passover celebration for about half of its 750 residents.
Rabbi William Gordon led residents, ranging in age from 85 to 107, in a Seder celebrating the customs of the Ashkenazic Jews, or European Jews. Tonight, the practices of Sephardic Jews, who have their roots in Spain and countries along the Mediterranean, will be observed.
Michael Turner, spokesman for the Jewish Home, said although a few residents will be joined by their families, most depend on the home to provide them with the spiritual celebration.
"People here have outlived some of their children," said Turner, noting that 20 residents are over 100. "We are trying to make this home their family now."
Struck by the rejuvenation theme, Valley residents who experienced the earthquake are just happy to have some place to celebrate.
"People feel closer because of the earthquake," said Ceena Holzer, of Calabasas, who attended the community Seder at Temple Solael with her husband, Stephen, and their three children. "This extended family is as important as the ones you are related to."