It wasn’t so much that about 85 high school kids were in a synagogue for a Passover Seder; it was that there was hardly a Jew in sight.
But that was the idea for this gathering, to teach Catholic high school students about the holiday that commemorates Moses’ leading the Jews out of Egypt and slavery.
“Your faith wouldn’t have existed if we weren’t rescued from Egypt,” Rabbi Isaac Jeret told the students who gathered at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes last week.
This marked the third year that Catholic students went to the synagogue to learn about Passover, what Jeret called “for the Jewish people, our master story.” He said the event “is one of the most important things we do in this synagogue each year. . . . We explore how different and similar our faiths are.”
The Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, in charge of ecumenical affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who sat next to Jeret, said the archdiocese has engaged in many programs with Jews recently. “All are an effort to grow an appreciation of each other,” he said.
Elsewhere, Catholic students also are attending Seders. This year, for example, all 1,200 students at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance attended Seders in the gym.
“We were looking to our elder sisters and brothers in faith,” Smith said.
Neither Smith nor Jeret, the son of a Holocaust survivor, airbrushed the Catholic Church’s past anti-Semitism. Matzo, the unleavened bread eaten on Passover, has led to “some of the darkest moments of history between our people,” Jeret said. He told the students about “blood libels,” when Jews were falsely accused of killing Christian children to use their blood in matzo.
“The result was many Jews were killed at the hands of the Church,” Jeret said.
Smith, whose full shock of gray hair falls to his shoulders, later added, “The history between Catholics and Jews has not always been pleasant. We’re still working on that.”
The Ner Tamid Catholic Seders grew out of the close relationship between the synagogue and Catholics on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
In early 1999, at a conference at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, a Catholic unexpectedly proposed marching from the center to Ner Tamid to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when German mobs attacked Jews, burned and vandalized synagogues and destroyed Jewish-owned stores in 1938.
About 1,000 people took part in the 1 1/4 -mile candlelight procession, and another 1,000 met them for the program at the synagogue. At Ner Tamid, the Catholics presented the synagogue with a sculpture made of unbreakable glass.
Out of that march came the Dawn Unity Group, dedicated to continuing the interfaith dialogue in Palos Verdes. The group holds four programs a year.
Passover, an eight-day celebration, begins this year at sundown Wednesday. Seders, in which the Passover story is read from the Haggada, usually are held in homes, not synagogues.
At last week’s event, the Catholic youths sat at tables, with ceremonial foods set in front of them: matzo; charoset, a combination of apple, nuts, wine and cinnamon; horseradish; parsley; salt water; a roasted lamb shank bone; and a roasted egg. The males wore skullcaps that many Jews put on while praying.
Before the Seder began, Smith explained the significance of Passover from a Catholic perspective -- that as a Jew, Christ would have celebrated Passover and that the Last Supper was a Seder, something most students were not aware of. He pointed out that Catholics have adopted some of the symbols of Passover. For example, the four glasses of wine drunk at the Seder (at this one, the youths drank apple juice) became the chalice of wine that Catholics believe is the blood of Christ. Matzo is similar to the Communion wafer eaten at Mass.
In addition, according to the Passover story, when the Pharaoh refused to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, God rained down 10 plagues on the Egyptians. The 10th was the slaying of the first-born son. Jews placed lamb’s blood on their doorways so the angel of death would know to pass them by.
Smith explained that the lamb was sacrificed so its blood would spare the Hebrew people in Egypt. “Early Christians identified Christ as the lamb being sacrificed,” he said. “Christ becomes our paschal lamb.”
Interfaith Seders are not unusual, and they come in many shapes and colors. Although one hope is that the Ner Tamid Seder will help demystify Judaism, what makes it different from other interfaith affairs, the rabbi said, is that the Catholic students are not paired with Jews. This gives students a chance to explore the similarities and differences between the religions in a more comfortable atmosphere.
“There is a conscious charge to do it for the Catholic community,” Jeret said. “What it means for Catholics is the focus.”
Michael Zapata, 18, said he was surprised by the similarities between the religions. “It gives me a different point of view,” he said.
Andrew Knox, 15, said, “It gave me a better understanding of Jewish traditions and what influenced them.”
But Jews still seemed a mystery to many of the students.
Edward Desouza, 14, said he hadn’t known that the Old Testament is the Jewish holy book.
The group seemed surprised when Jeret told them there were just 13.2 million Jews in the world, compared with 1.2 billion Catholics and 1 billion to 1.5 billion Muslims. “I thought there would be more,” said Joren Lagmay, 14.
For Bob Rothman, chairman of the Dawn Unity Group and a former Ner Tamid president, the Seder was a success.
“Part of the importance is having a priest explain to Catholic kids how this relates to their faith, that it is the Last Supper, the Jewishness of Jesus,” he said. “This is why we do it. If people would understand that much, then we would be a lot closer together.”