Religion

At Beth Israel in Miami Beach, rabbi offers an open-door Passover policy

 

If you go

To reserve a seat at Rabbi Katz’s Seders Monday and/or Tuesday nights, visit www.jewishcommunitycouncil.com. The cost for adults is $65 Monday, $35 Tuesday, or $90 for both. There are group discounts and children’s rates (children under 2 are free). The rabbi will make allowances for those who can’t pay the full amount.


ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

A Jewish kitchen on the day before the first Passover Seder is something of a battle zone: scrubbing implements are weapons, cleaning products the ordnance, rubber gloves the body armor.

The enemy: even the smallest crumb of chomtez, broadly defined as anything leavened, like bread or cake.

To the kosher “meat’’ kitchen of Beth Israel, an Orthodox Miami Beach synagogue, on Sunday Rabbi Efraim “Fishel’’ Katz brought the heavy artillery: a propane tank and torch.

He also brought reenforcements: Zalman Bryski and Yosef Rapp, 21-year-old rabbinical students from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

The weeklong holiday begins at sundown Monday. It celebrates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt in the time of Moses, and the larger concept of human freedom, be it the actual bondage of servitude, poverty, discrimination or destructive habits.

During the week, observant Jews eat matzoh to symbolize the unleavened bread that the Israelites ate as they fled the Egyptian pharaoh’s army some 3,000 years ago and followed Moses across the parted Red Sea to the Promised Land.

It’s said that they left so quickly their dough never had a chance to rise, but baked as they carried it into a flat, brittle form.

Most Seders are home-based family affairs, but Katz, who heads the Florida Jewish Community Council, has been creating a family of those who might not have one nearby — or at all — for 30 years, fulfilling a fundamental Passover dictate to welcome strangers and the needy to the Seder table.

The ritual’s text/how-to manual, the Haggadah, reminds Jews that “you know the heart of the stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’’

There are no strangers to Katz, 72, a globetrotting Chabad Lubavitch missionary from Chicago who has visited Jews in China, Sri Lanka and India. He isn’t the synagogue’s spiritual leader — that would be Rabbi Donald Bixon — but borrows the catering hall for two nights, for about 150 people.

His son Rabbi Zev Katz will lead Tuesday night’s Seder.

“Anyone can come to my Seder. I never refuse anyone,’’ the senior Katz said.

This year’s guest list includes 30 Russian Jews and “a lady who’s been coming for 30 years who doesn’t say a word. The only time she said anything was when I told her we might not have a Seder the next year and she started screaming, ‘Where am I going to go?’ ’’

Pulling on black, commercial rubber gloves, he explained the torch.

“The inside of the oven is critical because it has to be several degrees warmer than what it’s used for, so if it’s a 550-degree oven for broiling and baking, we have to go at least 551. We’ll torch it, turn on the oven and torch it again, so that transforms normal use into a kosher use.’’

It’s more than a kitchen chore, he said.

“Once you reach a goal, you’re at a higher level, too, so we’re koshering ourselves.’’

On Monday, the ovens will host organic kosher chickens, while two kinds of matzoh ball soup, vegan and the traditional chicken, bubble on the burner.

On the tables, participants will find round shmurah, or “guarded’’ matzoh from Ukraine — guarded against water from harvest to oven, so as not to risk even the slightest leavening.

“The tiniest little particle of chometz nullifies everything and makes it non-kosher, only on Passover,’’ he said.

This, too, applies to people.

“Make yourself observant. Observance is belief ...When you practice belief, you have this magic ingredient so you know how to live right and how to help your friends live right, so your life is not wasteful.’’

At its core, he said, the holiday teaches gratitude, “and if you’re grateful, you have to be happy. The only reason why you’re happy is that you did something right. By coming to the Passover Seder, you did something right.”

Yet for all its rules, Passover is a uniquely adaptable holiday, open to a vast range of interpretation and practice.

Thousands of versions of the Haggadah reflect the mainstream branches of Judaism as well as myriad variations tailored to special needs and interests: interfaith, feminist, gay, Zen, Zionist, eco-conscious, musical and more.

“If you look back over history, depending on the rabbi and community, you have different traditions,’’ said Rabbi Andrew Jacobs of Plantation’s Ramat Shalom, a progressive congregation that melds the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions.

“I have congregants who create their own Haggadahs over the years,’’ he said.

The Haggadah poses questions that will spur discussion, and through discussion, creativity, said Jacobs, 42.

“Ultimately, the Haggadah is designed to tell children the story in a way that’s relevant and fun, because if it isn’t, they won’t learn it.’’

So there are catchy songs, riddles and rewards. Some families even use props.

“For years we threw [toy] frogs,’’ one of the 10 plagues that God visited on the Egyptians to encourage them to let the Israelites go, Jacobs explained.

For adults, discussion around the Seder table should lead to a deeper understanding of what freedom means.

“Often times we focus so much on the surface, making it out of Egypt, but in one way or another, all of us are slaves to something: a challenge, an addiction, feeling sad about stuff that doesn’t matter,’’ Jacobs said.

“Passover is an opportunity to let go of the darkness, to make it across the parted sea, and an exodus from anything we want to leave behind.’’

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