Sedergoers take intermission to attend service at church

After the Hillel sandwich and before the serving of the festive meal, the community seder at Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore took an unusual turn.

Finishing up their mouthfuls of horseradish, charoset and matzah, the 100-plus members of the Reform congregation then joined up with Christian worshippers for a brief interfaith service next door.

"We're going to see the [gentiles]," said one member to his family, as they filed out of the dining hall and walked to the main room where the First Presbyterian Church of Livermore was assembled. For Christians, Thursday was also a day of worship, known as Maundy Thursday — the day of Jesus' last supper.

A choir draped in vivid purple stoles and about 100 churchgoers sang as the Jewish group filled the remaining long wooden pews. Rabbi Richard Winer of Beth Emek and the Rev. Bill Nebo of First Presbyterian stood together before the joint congregations.

The room, illuminated by jewel-toned stained glass, was not unfamilar to members of Beth Emek. For the past 10 years, the church has hosted the congregation for High Holy Day services, because Beth Emek's own synagogue has been too small. Later this year, Beth Emek is planning to relocate to Pleasanton, where its new building is under construction.

So the two leaders seized the chance to connect while the groups were still sharing the same space.

"This is a lovely opportunity to bring the congregations together formally," said Winer, who described the pastor as a "mensch."

"They're concerned in the same way about making the world a better place, and they've been a warm and wonderful host to us always."

He explained that joining with the Christian service was not a breach of tradition. "We may not be Orthodox, but we don't throw out tradition without a good reason. Technically, we're not breaking anything — this is an intermission in the seder."

Leading the joint service, Winer described Passover as a time to relive the experience of becoming free. "Our command is to help bring about freedom for everyone, and to appreciate new life," he said. Strumming on his guitar, he led a sing-along of "Go Down Moses."

Nebo followed with a wish that people would "appreciate the wisdom of the three great faiths — Islam, Judaism and Christianity," adding, "what we do here may be a small part to accomplish this hope."

In front of him was a long table covered with a white cloth, with crystal bowls containing bitter herbs, wine and other elements of the seder, for use later in the Christian service. It has been increasingly popular among Protestant congregations to include some aspect of the seder ritual.

"It's a way for us to acknowledge our Jewish roots and that Christ was Jewish," Nebo said later. "There is a need to widen our traditions. We have such rich experiences, and we have so many in common, they will be mutually strengthened when we share them."

Back in the fellowship hall, members of Beth Emek tucked into their seder dinner, which included vegetarian matzah pizza and chocolate-covered matzah for dessert.

Response to the interfaith service was uniformly positive. "It was full of joy, and the atmosphere was wonderful. I want it to become a tradition," said Lucille Bruskin, a congregation member for 40 years.

"I had a lot of reservations on a personal level," said Valerie Jonas, president of Beth Emek. "Seder means 'order,' and I wasn't sure that I wanted to interject an interfaith event into a very deep Jewish experience. But all people are welcome at the seder, and so I realized that I needed to be open to new experiences, too. The more communities can join together and then separate with respect, the more we all learn about the world."