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Temple Beth Sholom

642 Dolores Avenue
San Leandro, CA 94577
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Wednesday, April 07, 1999

Passover Seder unites diverse cultural groups

San Leandro ceremony helps Jews, Christians and Palestinians find common ground, understanding

By Jeanie R. Wakeland

SAN LEANDRO -- "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

This question, asked for 3,000 years by Jews observing Passover, was spoken again Monday night at a special Seder attended by Jews, Palestinians and Christians at Temple Beth Sholom.

But instead of recounting the traditional story of the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, the readings centered on the common sufferings as well as the conflicts between Palestinians and Jews.

"This is a peace liturgy," Rabbi Harry Manhoff said.

Those attending were part of a year-old East Bay Palestinian and Jewish Living Room Dialogue Group, which is working to find common ground and to find ways of healing the wounds of recent strife, Manhoff said.

"We are learning to listen to the other side," he said. "For some, it's the first time we've considered the other side."

The Passover Seder is one of the most important holiday traditions on the Jewish calendar. Although the Islamic faith incorporates some key beliefs and some of the religious prophets of both Judaism and Christianity, this was the first Seder Rifaat Rasheed, a Palestinian and a Muslim, had attended.

"This was my first time in synagogue. It's not as restrictive as I thought it would be," he said.

His wife also attended.

"I had tears in my eyes," Hanan Rasheed said. "I wish more had attended."

The Rasheeds were the only Palestinians among the 30 Jews, Christians and others at the white-clothed tables set with traditional food -- parsley to be dipped in salt water, matzoh crackers, wine and grape juice, horseradish and charoset, a mixture of chopped, sweetened fruits.

In traditional Passover Seders, the youngest child at the table answers four questions:

Why is unleavened bread eaten during Passover?

Why are bitter herbs eaten?

Why are foods dipped in salt water and in charoset? and

Why do participants lean on pillows?

In this service, the questions were similar, but the answers focused on graphic descriptions of incidents such as the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli soldiers, the common ancestors of Palestinians and Jews, and the shooting deaths of seven Israeli girls by a deranged Jordanian soldier.

"The answers were intended to make both sides squirm a little, but that's all right," Manhoff said.

One such story was about an Israeli woman, Dalia Landau, who discovered her beloved family home had been built by an Arab family before World War II. The Arab family was forced from that house in 1948 by the Israeli army. Landau eventually turned the home into a meeting place for Jews and Palestinians.

It was a story Rifaat Rasheed knew well. "We visited that house four weeks ago," he said.

He left Deir Debwan, his Palestinian village home in Israel, and was sent to the United States in 1967 by his family after he was briefly jailed by the Israelis.

"I resented being here, and I had to work 12 hours a day," he said. "Now, as I've gotten older, my feelings have healed."

Discussions among the 50 or more group members have been lively, said Eliezer Benaroya, an Israeli member of the group. Some members hoped the Seder -- as well as an earlier Ramadan celebration -- would be steps toward trusting each other.

Benaroya said he didn't expect full reconciliation, although he was grateful that group disagreements were verbal, not violent.

"Trust? That's difficult after 100 years of bloodshed," Benaroya said. "Trust is a long process."

Jeanie R. Wakeland covers the city of San Leandro. To reach her, call (510) 293-2469 or send e-mail to jwakeland@angnewspapers.com.

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