The centerpiece of Passover is the "Seder," a highly symbolic dinner used to retell the story of the Israelites' plight.
CANTON Probably no one accomplishes their 10,000-steps-a-day fitness goal quicker than Rabbi A.J. Kushner, the young leader of Agudas Achim, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.
Kushner is everywhere these days, getting ready to host a two-day Passover Seder dinner for more than 250 people April 10 and 11 at a hotel in Jackson Township.
Guests from several states are expected to attend. Last year's inaugural dinner drew about 175 people the first night and 125 the second, Kushner said.
Passover commemorates the Jews' liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt as recorded in the Book of Exodus in the Torah. The centerpiece of Passover is the Seder, a highly symbolic dinner used to retell the story of the Israelites' plight.
"It's the only commandment in the Bible that talks about giving hope to future generations," Kushner said. "Its purpose is to teach your children, your grandchildren, what has happened. The Passover Seder is the continuity of the Jewish people."
Kushner said his "super" Seder emerged out of a simple need: The communal Seder he and his family started hosting at Agudas Achim quickly outgrew its seating capacity.
"Three years ago, we had close to 70 people sitting at the tables," he recalled. "During the Seder, you get up two times to watch your hands. You have to light the candles ... I saw people not happy."
Kushner said large communal Seders are not unusual in California, Arizona, Florida and on the East Coast, where he grew up. Canton's communal Seder, he said, will see guests from Canada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania Columbus and Cleveland.
"The idea has been around for a very long time," he said. "It's expensive, but everything is catered. Last year was a great try and was something that saw a lot of positive feedback."
Kushner said a chef from Cleveland will prepare the food in adherence to kosher dietary laws, noting that a communal Seder makes observing the holiday easier for families. Prior to Passover, homes must be completely cleansed from all food products containing "leaven," or yeast, in keeping with the first Passover. The unleavened bread symbolizes the haste with which the ex-slaves fled Egypt. Some people even use separate sets of dishes, cups, and utensils that have never touched products containing yeast.
Kushner also noted that the observance of Passover is one of the six commandments in the Bible concerning remembrance.
"It's very well stressed upon in the Bible the commandment of teaching the next generation," he said. "This has made us into a religion. God took us out of Egypt for the sole purpose that we should be under his leadership, that he should give us the Bible, that we should be able to be free. Real freedom is to have a meaning to your life. Real freedom is to be under a leadership that has real meaning to it. In Egypt, we were slaves with no purpose."
Kushner said that when Seder is observed out of context, "it becomes a meal, not a service."
"It's a party, it's a meal, but it really is a service," he said. "Lately, I have seen people trying to sell how fast they can make it (go). There's actually a book, a Haggadah (Passover service guide) 'Passover in 30 Minutes.'
"The Passover Seder has more meaning to it."
"Next year in Jerusalem"
Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum, Agudas Achim's scholar-in-residence, recently wrote that the beauty of Passover is its continuity. A native of Bergen-Belsen, Scheinbaum noted that his parents observed Passover in 1943 in the notorious Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.
"During the entire time, they kept up their chanting hoping that the promise of 'L'Shana Haba'ah b' Yerushalayim,' (next year in Jerusalem)," he wrote. "Our national history is checkered with (Seders) that were observed under tyranny and oppression, as well as luxury and peace. They all had one common denominator: It was the religious experience of acknowledging our overwhelming debt of gratitude to the Almighty, our father in Heaven, from delivering us from bondage; and our national pride in being selected as his people."
Kushner said the latest outbreak of anti-Semitism is not just an age-old expression of envy, but a reminder of one's identity.
"You should appreciate who you are," he said.
"Unfortunately, we have these rude awakenings. I feel like when somebody walks past a cemetery and sees graves that have been kept up, they see people coming to visit, the stones on top, they see continuity," he said. "We're still burying people the way they were buried 2,000 years ago. They can't stand that. Today has turned into an economy bent; whatever's cheaper. For the Jewish people, our tradition is, it's not an option. Certain (anti-Jewish) people hate it."
Kushner said that no matter where they are in the world, all Jews understand the elements of Passover.
"If you look back at the Passover Seder, you're eating the exact same bread, baked the same way, with the same ingredients, they ate in Egypt the night before they left," he said. "We're eating the same bitter herbs, and we're eating it in the same time frame. We've been eating it for 3,300 years. Every single year we do the same thing, the same time, in unity ... Some people think Passover is a such an archaic thing, but think about it: We're going to have great-grandpas sitting at the Seder, transmitting what they heard from their great-grandpa. Go back 15 (generations of) Passovers, and you're back in Egypt."
Kushner said Passover also is a yearly reminder of God's deliverance.
"We're saying, 'Every generation, they're going to try and get rid of you, and every generation, God is always going to save you,'" he said.
Kushner added that he hopes a communal Seder will help strengthen Stark County's Jewish community, as well as provide a place for some people to go.
"Passover can be a turning point," he said. "We're all in this together. We all left Egypt together."
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