The eight-day festival of Passover is one of the most celebrated experiences on the Jewish calendar, but for Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor, and for those of the Jewish faith across the world, it requires days of preparations.
On a recent Tuesday, less than two weeks before the beginning of Passover on March 25, Rabbi Aaron Gaber sat in his office, making arrangements for the synagogue's community Seder dinner, an event, he estimates, the congregation has not hosted in more than 10 years.
"Let all who are hungry come and eat," he said, referring to the theme of the Seder, adding that he expects to see nearly 70 members of the community and the synagogue attend.
Falling during the Hebrew month of Nisan, Passover recognizes the struggle of the ancient Israelites and celebrates the escape from slavery in Egypt. Typically, the ritualistic dinner that accompanies the onset of the holiday is celebrated with family in one's home.
Gaber recognized the need to open Beth Judah's doors and host a community-sized dinner.
"We know there are people in our community that don't have seders to go to that would love to go to one, but are uncomfortable to go to someone's home," he said.
Gaber, who traditionally hosts seder at home with his immediate family, hopes the night will be comparable to his own celebrations.
"It's going to be very participatory, very family oriented. Everyone is welcome to bring in their own thing and share. It will be very informal and very much what it would be like in my own home, just with more people."
Gaber said that before the special night, Jews must prepare, beginning with ridding their homes of "hammetz," or any food that is leavened.
"The idea is that we are supposed to clean out and take out everything except the essentials," he said. "It's a sense of spring cleaning."
The seder incorporates matzah, or unleavened bread, made of water and flour - or mere essentials - he said.
Gaber stressed that Passover gets every member of the family involved, even young children.
On March 10, members of PJ Library - an international organization that promises a free Jewish-themed book every month to children across the nation - gathered at Kensington Furniture in Northfield in order to ready themselves for Passover.
The local chapter of PJ Library, participating for its first year, is a partnership among Congregation Beth Judah, Congregation Beth Israel, The Jewish Community Center, the Board of Jewish Education and Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, said Lynne Midelton, of Ventnor, the PJ Library administrator for the area.
"It's to bring the family close," she said of the program, "to enjoy the books together."
That day, about seven families enjoyed the Passover story "Only Nine Chairs" and constructed "afikomen" bags.
During the Passover seder, one of three pieces of matzah is broken in half and hidden. This piece is referred to as the "afikomen," Midelton explained, and is eaten toward the end of the dinner.
Funds are raised during the days before Passover, Gaber said. Donations raised by Beth Judah are typically split among the Jewish Family Service food pantry, MAZON, a Jewish food relief agency, and the local Humane Society.
With March 25 quickly approaching, Gaber must focus on finalizing the details of his first community seder. Although he has to cap the list of attendees by March 18, he hopes to have a few extra meals on hand for latecomers.
Regardless of where one celebrates, he hopes everyone will take advantage of what the holiday represents.
"It's time for us to take stock of life and get back to the essentials that are most important to us," he said. "We need to remind ourselves of what is most important."
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To learn more
PJ Library will hold a breakfast-for-dinner event at the Denny's in Northfield from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. May 6.
The event is free and all are welcome to attend.