Anguish over Israel clouds U.S. Passover celebrations

A "dark cloud of grief" hovered over the Passover seder this year at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sherith Israel — just as it did at every seder table in the country, according to Rabbi Martin Weiner.

That cloud certainly reached across the bay, where Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom couldn't help but notice "a pall cast over one of the most remarkable Jewish experiences. I think everyone felt that way. It was just startling to think that a bomber, a terrorist could walk into a hotel and kill so many who were simply participating in a seder."

As American Jews sat down this year to celebrate the Hebrews' liberation from slavery in Egypt, the seemingly relentless spate of suicide bombings in Israel — and, in particular the Netanya Passover massacre that claimed the lives of at least 26 Jews — weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of sedergoers.

"It was just a huge effect. People cannot celebrate completely with an open heart. People are completely confused as to how to respond to this," said Rabbi Gordon Freeman of Walnut Creek's Conservative Congregation B'nai Shalom, recalling his synagogue's seder. "People here were more than just sad, they were appalled and shocked and can't understand it."

For many, familiar Passover traditions took on new meanings — or were clarified.

"Maror was a very clear symbol for us this year. We didn't have to think what it meant or try to relate to bitterness. We all had the bitterness in our mouths from this situation before we ate the maror this year," said Rabbi Dorothy Richman of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. "On the occasion of the four children, we discussed the fact that many of us have different responses to the violence in the Mideast, but, at this point, the important thing is we can still all talk to each other at one table and ask questions."

The familiar refrain "next year in Jerusalem!" brought a lump into many throats and evoked a multitude of emotions.

"I can tell you that when we came to that point in the seder this year, my wife was in tears. Tears of wondering what was going to happen in Israel and when we would be there next," said Weiner. "For many years, we have literally sent thousands of young people to Israel in summer programs, and I wonder when we'll start again in these times of security."

At Tiburon's Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar, Rabbi Daniel Kohn led congregants in a slightly altered song at the conclusion of the seder, hoping to spend next year in a "rebuilt Jerusalem."

"When [the Haggadah] was first written at the beginning of the state of Israel, it meant 'rebuild the country.' Now, it's taken on new meaning, that Jerusalem will be rebuilt so it will truly reflect the name Ir Shalem — the city of peace."

In addition to comforting shaken congregants, rabbis from across the nation also made calls to take action on Israel's behalf.

Rabbis also encouraged political activism and support. Sinai Temple in Los Angeles launched a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign to aid Israeli victims of terror.

Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Chabad of Illinois and spiritual leader of Chabad of Northbrook in the Chicago suburbs, said he is encouraging his congregants "not to get burdened by the crisis, but rather to get strength from it."

"It's a sign that we all have to do more," he said. "We have to come together and be stronger."

At Temple Emanu-El of West Essex, a Reform congregation in Livingston, N.J., Rabbi Daniel Levin used his Shabbat sermon over the weekend to urge members to take political action.

Levin distributed fliers with concrete suggestions, such as attending a local solidarity rally on Israel's Independence Day, writing regularly to President Bush and other political leaders urging them to continue supporting Israel, and investing in Israel Bonds.

"We need to be able to look into our children's eyes at next year's seder, and in years to follow, and be able to tell them we did all we could to support our people in their time of need," he said in the sermon.

Rabbi Avis Miller of Adas Israel Congregation, a large Conservative synagogue in Washington, said that in her sermon on the first day of Passover, she encouraged congregants at their seders to relate their Haggadah text to Israel's current challenges.

She noted that Israel's Jews have their day-to-day freedom curtailed by terrorism.

"I talked about how mitzrayim means narrow, and I can't think of anything more constricting than not being able to go about your business," she said, referring to the Hebrew word for Egypt.

Whether Orthodox or Reform, left-wing or right, talk of Israel dominated conversations in synagogues and — in many cases — at seders across the country.

Among those who came to the second seder last week at Moscowitz's Orthodox congregation in Chicago, there "was a lot of confusion," he said. "People are not sure about strategy, what the end game is, what's the plan."

"Our answer is we also have to look at the spiritual side of things and the unity of the Jewish people. When the rest of the world sees the Jewish people being united, that will help and sends a powerful message to Israel."