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More congregations host Passover seders

A shift from home-based tradition

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Congregation Shirat Hayam’s Ruach Rally Band, led by Cantor Elana Rozenfeld (center), rehearsed for a special musical seder Saturday night.

Gathering for a Passover seder in a temple is a tradition that goes back centuries, when Jews first landed on these shores. And in recent years, there’s been an uptick in the number of people attending synagogue seders, rather than observing the holiday ritual in their homes.

On Friday and Saturday nights, when the Passover meals are held, more than 15 public seder gatherings will take place in area communities. Spiritual leaders and congregation members say the increase can be traced to everything from more diffuse Jewish families to people wanting to celebrate the holiday of freedom with others.

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“Rituals performed more in the house are being done more and more in the synagogue,’’ said Rabbi David Meyer, who will oversee a seder for 180 congregants Saturday night at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.

The seder, or meal, is one of two held on the holiday that marks the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. “The fact that families are more spread out than ever makes it more difficult to gather as families in homes. Frankly, we know that not everybody would have a place to go for seder were it not for the synagogue,’’ said Meyer.

This year, temples across the region will hold everything from traditional seders to Kabbalah and musical seders. Typically, the meal consists of unleavened bread, or matzo, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, chicken, chopped liver, along with four toasts with wine, and almost anything else that does not contain bread, wheat, barley, rye, or oats. This custom recalls the story of Exodus, when Jewish slaves fled Egypt so quickly that they did not have time to let their bread rise.

All of the synagogues charge a nominal fee for the meal, and nearly all are standing-room-only affairs.

“We see the seder and Passover as a template for entering into a broad spiritual consciousness,’’ explained Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, who will lead a Kabbalah seder Friday night at Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore in Swampscott. Lipsker said part of the seder will focus on the matzo, which according to Jewish mysticism symbolizes humility and generosity. “On Passover, we are a conduit to redistribute the goodness that flows through us,’’ the rabbi said.

A mile down the road in Swampscott, at Congregation Shirat Hayam, a musical seder is planned for Saturday night, when 300 guests are expected. In addition to the seder, the gathering will feature the synagogue’s house band playing Passover songs, emphasizing the holiday’s theme of freedom.

“Passover is a celebration, and if music was good for our Israelite brothers and sisters dancing at the Red Sea, then I think we should be dancing,’’ said Shirat Hayam’s rabbi, Baruch HaLevi. “Passover was never meant to be a cerebral reading exercise; it was meant to be a celebration of spirit and joy.’’

In Malden, Congregation Agudas Achim-Ezrath Israel will hold its 22d consecutive seder on Saturday night. Barbara Weiner, a former temple president, believes the gatherings allow people who can’t prepare a traditional seder to experience one of Judaism’s most celebrated holidays.

“We have a mixture of people,’’ said Weiner. “Many are alone. Either they’re singles or they’ve lost their partners, and they like to be with other people they know. There are many people who don’t have any other place to go.’’

At many of the synagogue seders, the food is home-cooked by a cadre of volunteers. At the Malden temple, Marilyn Masters has been working on the menu with several other congregants for weeks. Last week, she spent days shopping and cleaning chickens. When she grinds chopped liver by hand and cooks matzo ball soup, she thinks of her mother, whose recipes she uses.

“I like that people enjoy it,’’ said Masters, who has been a member of the congregation for 40 years. From her perch near the temple’s kitchen she observes people eating. “I watch the dishes when they come back to see if they’re empty.’’

In Chelsea - home of one of the oldest Jewish communities in Massachusetts - the seder has served as a springboard to rejuvenate Temple Emmanuel.

“At first we did it to bring people in, and then we recognized that there was a need in the community,’’ said the temple’s president, Sara Lee Callahan. “Not everybody has the time, the health, or the energy to put one on at home anymore.’’

While some who will attend the seder are new residents of the city, or from nearby Charlestown, nearly all will be Chelsea natives who remember a thriving Jewish community that once had more than a dozen active temples.

“It’s a homecoming; there’s electricity in the hall,’’ said Callahan, who expects families to travel from as far away as Arizona and Florida for Saturday night’s seder.

In Peabody, Temple Beth Shalom will hold a “semi-potluck’’ seder on Saturday night, with some of the food prepared by the temple and the rest brought by congregants.

About 65 are expected, and Rabbi Emily Mathis said the shared meal will be an opportunity to create friendships and build relationships.

“The community seder is a way to have more shared conversation and dialogue,’’ she said. “It builds community.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be contacted by e-mail at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on his Twitter feed, @WriteRosenberg.
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