Temple Israel Interfaith Seder: Welcoming Strangers, Making Friends

parsley and horseradish

Don’t take a full bite of the stuff on the right!

What makes the Temple Israel Interfaith Seder different from all other seders? For starters, the Jews in attendance are outnumbered by roughly 7 to 1. At the thirty-second annual event, held on March 10, the advice to the wise, evil, simple and unknowing children was read by groups of Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and Catholics, respectively. The Passover story was re-told by Unitarians, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and members of the Islamic Center of the Twin Cities.
Each year, 200 or so guests attend the service, from the nearby downtown congregations and from as far away as (this year) Eden Prairie and Blue Earth. Senior Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman told guests that, through their presence, they are helping fulfill the mission that is carved above the front door: “May Our House Be a House of Prayer for All People.”
The afternoon began in the sanctuary with a brief orientation, where visitors learned, among other things, that:

  • There are five doors onto Emerson Avenue, the identifying symbol of synagogues since the days of the Italian ghettoes. “Jews don’t do neon,” Rabbi Zimmerman said, a gentle gibe at her good friends at Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church.
  • The five doors stand for the five books of Moses, and the twelve pillars inside the sanctuary stand for the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • The name “Temple Israel” tells insiders that this is a liberal religious congregation—the Jews who worship here are not awaiting a Third Temple in Jerusalem, but have bloomed where they planted themselves a century ago.
  • Staying put required some chutzpah, since Minneapolis was once known at the most anti-Semitic city in the U.S.

Perhaps the toughest news that Rabbi Zimmerman has to deliver, year after year, to Christian guests is that they are not about to re-enact the Last Supper. The seder in its current form emerged in the second and third centuries of the Common Era. Jesus and his friends would have enjoyed a barbecue in the hills outside Jerusalem, with no parsley dipped in saltwater and nary a single verse of “Dayenu.”
From the sanctuary, guests trooped down to the social hall, where the ritual foods awaited:  Horseradish, hard-boiled eggs, apple charoset, gefilte fish, grape juice and Mogen David, and an ample tray of desserts. The seder is funded by the Knelman Family Fund for Interfaith Relations, and Ruth Knelman, elegant at 102, presided at the head table.
All seders are chaotic in different ways. At the Interfaith Seder, guests dunked and downed their parsley before the prayer was finished, and looked profoundly embarrassed when the Rabbi said, “And now you can eat the parsley.”  One guest unfamiliar with horseradish popped an entire slice of horseradish into her mouth, then spent the next few minutes gasping for breath and sweating profusely while tablemates offered water and belated warnings. The gefilte fish got mixed reviews. The chocolate covered matzoh was a hit, as always.
Everyone joined in on the standard audience participation schtick—kids ran around the room seeking the afikomen, which they redeemed for prizes. The assembled interfaith clergy in the room were assigned the task of reciting “Who Knows Six?” without taking a breath, and they did a creditable job.
The guests may not know until Monday just how heavy matzoh sits in the digestive tract. On Sunday, they departed with warm thanks for their hosts, Passover dessert recipes in hand.
But first, a final song—one that, Rabbi Zimmerman tells them, is in our prayer book just as it is in theirs. “America, America, God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining see.” A fitting note to end on.
Laura French is a freelance writer who lives in north Minneapolis, two blocks from the Victory Memorial bike trail. She is a member of Temple Israel. One of the stated goals in her conversion statement was to become a Jewish writer, and she is grateful to TC Jewfolk for advancing her in that goal.
(Photo: Revenante)