Miami-Dade County

Across different communities, Jews come together to retell the story of Passover

As Jews retell an ancient story of freedom and share an traditional meal on Monday and Tuesday nights, many have taken to heart a growing Passover tradition in South Florida: Everyone should have a place to go.

No matter their culture, no matter their generation or degree of observance, more and more faithful Jews are coming together in communal settings to share the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. And although observers still celebrate Passover with family and good friends, community celebrations are becoming more common as strangers sit around a table to share the story, the soup, the brisket and, of course, the sweets.

“I think it has a lot to do with people being more geographically mobile,” said Rabbi Moshe “Tom” Heyn from Temple Israel of Greater Miami, who will lead a second-night Passover Seder of 200 people. “A lot of people may not have their roots here, but still want to celebrate with other people.”

The Seder — the ritual-infused Passover meal — takes on its own flavor in diverse South Florida. And with that diversity come new ideas and discussion about today’s relevance of the ancient story of when the Israelites became free from slavery after fleeing the Egyptian Pharaoh’s army, Heyn said.

“With different cultures, comes different traditions,” he said, adding that people bring their own family heirlooms, including kiddush (wine) cups and Haggadahs (the Passover prayer book.) “It’s a very beautiful thing.”

Temple Israel isn’t alone in reaching out to those who otherwise would not have a place to celebrate with others, such as students away from home and those recently arrived from other countries. Synagogues and organizations across South Florida — typically on the second night of the eight-day holiday — are filling the void by offering the elaborate holiday meal to those who can’t prepare one themselves.

“There are a lot of people who wouldn’t have a Seder if it weren’t for synagogues,” said Karen Sobel, program director of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest.

Although the basic rules of the Seder can translate to any table — there’s matzoh, bitter herbs and a particular order for doing things — there are different ways of celebrating the exodus.

“We celebrate freedom and we are reminded that we were once slaves,” said Rabbi Marc Philippe of Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach. The Miami Beach Conservative temple hosts a second night Seder for about 75 people. The evening begins with everyone sitting on the floor, as if they were in the desert, to reenact the tale.

At one Northeast Miami-Dade Orthodox shul, more than 100 people from about a dozen countries will reenact the story with costumes and props representing the 10 plagues that befell on the Egyptians after Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Jewish people go. At Temple Beth Am, a group of about 30 people from South American countries will share a table as about 200 people read from and follow the Haggadah. And at Temple Israel near downtown Miami, young and old will mingle and share wine as they discuss the modern relevance of the Passover story.

“We can learn so much from each other,” said Rabbi Eliezer Wolf of Beit David Highland Lakes Shul in Northeast Miami-Dade.

Wolf said a communal Seder allows people to add their own traditions, practices and even languages to the mix. Wolf and his wife, Chanie, began preparing for the celebration last week, grinding the horseradish and making about a dozen Seder plates — which featuree six items that represent different parts of the story. At last year’s Seder, some of the traditional Hebrew tunes were sung with different tunes, and the four questions, which ask why certain rituals are performed for Passover and not any other night, were asked in several languages, including Russian, Spanish, Arabic and English.

Wolf said the Seder goes on until the people “conk out.” Children and adults put on costumes to play roles of slaves, Egyptians and Moses. A butterfly net becomes a sack that they carry on their back with the matzoh, the cracker-like unleavened bread symbolizing the ancient food that did not have a chance to rise as Israelites fled Egypt. The rabbi will throw colorful frogs to represent one of the plagues. And sparkly sunglasses will be used to represent the darkness in Egypt.

“We try to make it educational and fun,” he said.

At the nearby Beth Torah Benny Rok Campus just west of Aventura, Moses — also known as Rabbi Ed Farber — will make a cameo appearance at the temple’s second-night Seder on Tuesday while the children search for afikomen, the hidden matzoh that could bring a prize if found. Farber, who dressed up as Moses on Thursday for a model Seder at the synagogue’s Hochberg Preparatory school, explained freedom to a group of third-graders who will celebrate in different ways.

Yasmine Klein, 9, found the afikomen in a red box “because it’s usually hidden in the corner. The third-grader said the model Seder, where they read the Haggadah and complete all of the rituals, helps her to understand her own family meal.

“It’s fun to celebrate the holiday with my friends,” she said.

Farber said there will be about 300 people on the second night, about the same at a Spanish-language community Seder done on the first night of the holiday.

For Adriana Halac, being able to attend a large Seder in Spanish at Beth Torah is “amazing.”

“You feel like you belong,” said Halac, who is originally from Argentina and came to Miami in 2001. Halac said the Seder is like “one big family,” with everyone sharing a common Jewish bond.

In the synagogue’s party room, more than 20 round tables will be set up, each with their own Seder plate. Some people will sit with their own family and others will be placed randomly with others.

Halac said that by the end of the evening, everyone will know everyone.

For students who can’t make it home for the holiday, the University of Miami Hillel offers a communal Seder, which draws about 150 students from all over the country, said Shana Kantor, executive director.

And tourists and anyone else are welcome to join Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus of Chabad of South Broward as he leads about 300 people through the “ABCs of Passover,” both nights.

“The key to a successful Seder, “ he said, “is good food, good company and a lot of learning.”