Jews, Palestinians talk freedom at East Bay seder

Cantor Linda Hirshhorn sang her song of reconciliation, "Sarah and Hagar."

Rabbi Harry Manhoff selected the "Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah," a Haggadah compiled by Rabbi Arthur Waskow to bring "Jews and Palestinians together to recognize our common roots."

Held on the anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the "dialogue seder" drew a group of 20 Jews, Palestinians and Christian clergy members to Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro.

"This whole thing is about awakening understanding in people," said Manhoff, who coordinated the event, the only one of its kind in the Bay Area. It was sponsored by the East Bay Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, a spinoff of a group that began on the Peninsula in 1992.

"Palestinians are people, Jews are people. We both realize that the only future is one of peace and that we have to work together. It's not going to happen by itself," added Manhoff, the spiritual leader of the Conservative synagogue.

Attending his first Jewish seder, the Rev. Dave Sauer of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in San Leandro surveyed the table with interest, eyeing the traditional Passover symbols of parsley, salt water, matzah, horseradish and charoset.

He and his wife Gretchen visited Israel in 1987 and felt that "when Americans first get to the Holy Land, the tendency is to be pro-Israel," but as they understand more about the history of the struggle, they gain more empathy for the Palestinian side. "So I'm interested in the dialogue tonight between Palestinian and Jew."

Stephen Steiner of Castro Valley, a member of the temple's board of directors, also felt that Passover was a natural holiday to celebrate the coming together of peoples striving for freedom and peace.

"Just as Jews and Palestinians have major differences, we've got tremendous commonalities," he said. "The people involved in tonight's event look at the cup as being half full as opposed to half empty."

During the seder, Manhoff read "The Story of Ismail and Yitzchak" from Waskow's Haggadah, which incorporates the teachings of the Koran and the Torah. Jews, Christians and Muslims lifted cups of Passover wine and grape juice to recite the four blessings: the cup of spring, the cup of memory, the cup of determination and the cup of covenant and hope.

Hanan Rasheed of Danville, a Palestinian Muslim born in Jerusalem, came with her husband, Rifaat — they were the only Palestinians in attendance. Hanan Rasheed said she came to the seder because she felt it was essential to "learn about the people that you need to communicate with and live with side by side."

She recently hosted an interfaith gathering during Ramadan and believes that fear of the unknown is the biggest obstacle to dialogue. "We all look for the common goal, which is peace for us and for our children."

With the reading of the first question, "Why do we break the matzah in two?" Manhoff walked over to Hanan Rasheed with a slice of matzah and asked her to take hold of one side. The two broke the matzah to symbolize the sharing of land. The group read together, "When each people can eat from part of the Land, it will become a land of freedom."

Manhoff posed the second question, "Why do we dip herbs three times, once in salt water, once in bitter herbs and once in a sweet charoset?" and the group responded, "First for the tears of two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian; then for the bitterness of both peoples, tasting ruined lives; and then for the sweetness of two peoples, Palestinians and Israeli."

Interspersed throughout the questions were various readings describing the struggles and horrors of the demolition, land confiscation and terrorism. Manhoff recognized that the seder contained emotional, and sometimes uncomfortable, moments.

"And that's OK. This is not always easy and we still have a long way to go," he said, adding that he had no ulterior plans for the seder "other than to take another stumbling step forward towards peace."

Rifaat Rasheed, seated next to his wife, was born in Dierdebwan, near Jerusalem, and came to the United States in 1967 after being jailed after the war for disobeying Israeli soldiers. He felt "Jews here are willing to hear our side of the story" and was touched by the evening's service. He added that if all clergy could preach such messages of tolerance, people would find "a common ground for peace."

Eliezer Benaroya, a Jew from Castro Valley, recalled that while growing up in Israel, he had the impression that all Palestinians were terrorists, "and it's easy to feel like that when you don't know the people or the human beings behind the nationality."

He was previously opposed to a Palestinian state but now supports one. "If both people achieve their aspirations [not at] the expense of each other, there is a chance to bring peace to a region that didn't know peace for thousands of years."

Several participants left the seder expressing a sense of optimism.

Hanan Rasheed said the event opened her heart more to her Jewish friends and that "I promised myself that I would come every year."

Manhoff helped form the East Bay dialogue group about a year ago. It contains about 40 members who meet about once a month, usually in someone's home for dessert and discussion.