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Shared Passover in Santa Rosa

Josh Stithem, right, recovers from a potent bite of Maror, freshly grated horseradish that represents the bitterness of the Jews' slavery in Egypt, while his brother David Stithem looks on, during the Passover Seder on Wednesday at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.

Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 7:27 a.m.

With a hall full of congregants seated at tables decorated with Seder plates, Rabbi George Gittleman flung open the doors to Congregation Shomrei Torah to see if anyone else wanted to come inside.

"I open the door and yell out loud, because I can be here and be fully Jewish and I'm so grateful for that," Gittleman said.

The gesture was symbolic, since the event was sold out, but it represented the theme of the evening: the celebration of freedom from repression. It also mirrored the congregation's goal of reaching out to the community, one of the main reasons the temple decided to host its first Community Passover Seder open to nonmembers.

"We have a very diverse group here," Gittleman said to the crowd of 160. "We have Christians, we have Jews, we have people with various beliefs and orientations, and we're so glad you're here."

Passover, one of Judaism's major holidays, celebrates the liberation of Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt.

There were a range of circumstances that led each individual through the door and into fellowship Wednesday night. Rudy Goldstein, 65, of Santa Rosa said it was the first time he attended a Seder at a synagogue since he was a teenager.

Retired nurse Rose Rivera, 74, was curious after studying the history of Israel and the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust, she said.

"Something inside me said, 'You have to go to this Seder'," Rivera said.

For Rina Czapszys, 40, a physical therapist, the evening was a chance to reconnect with a tradition that she's missed since she began going through a divorce with her partner, who was her connection to Judaism.

"I think it's a beautiful ritual," Czapszys said. "I love the songs. I love the tradition of remembering sad times, and it gives that much more meaning to what you have now, and I always like an excuse to eat and be with friends and family."

Although the topics were serious, the tone was light, as Gittleman and Rabbi Stephanie Kramer led the guided meal. Rivera and her family dipped a sprig of parsley in a bowl of saltwater, a way to remember the tears of ancestors who suffered as slaves.

The Goldsteins dipped a finger into their glass of wine again and again, spilling droplets of wine on their plates to signify the 10 plagues that befell the Egyptians, and to remember the blood that was spilled for their salvation.

Although it is hard for many to relate to slavery, there are still 27 million people enslaved throughout the world, mostly women and children, Gittleman said.

"Part of the Seder experience is to remember what it was like to be a slave, and contemplate what it is like to be a slave, literally or figuratively," Gittleman said. "The fact that the Supreme Court is debating same-sex marriage during Passover is poignant for me, because Passover is all about oppression, freedom, equality."

The night is also an opportunity for many to consider how they may be enslaved by their cellphones, jobs or addictions, Gittleman said. As the congregated sang, read stories and told jokes, many reflected on their own fortune.

"It means freedom," Charlotte Goldstein, 91, said of the Seder. "It's a way to celebrate freedom."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

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