Barrack Hebrew Academy hosted Catholic students at the school's first interfaith seder while Muslim and Jewish adults connected at their own inagural event in Center City.
Visitors to Barrack Hebrew Academy last week could be forgiven for doing a double take if they came across the modestly dressed nuns and Catholic high school students strolling the labyrinth of hallways at the Jewish day school in Bryn Mawr.
No, the Catholic group hadn’t wandered onto the wrong campus by accident. They were, in fact, the honored guests of an interfaith seder being hosted by the 11th- and 12-graders at Barrack.
While interfaith seders have become commonplace over the years, it was the first time the Main Line private school had run such a program. At least one other local group had a similar first, bringing Jewish and Muslim adults together for a ritual Passover meal that satisfied both halal and kosher diets.
The Barrack seder on April 7 was part of a “Friends of Faith” exchange program between the two schools that is sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and involves the students taking turns visiting one another once every year.
“After the ground is broken and they start to have dialogue and share with each other, they gain a deeper understanding of each other,” said Sally Bleznak, the AJC chair of domestic affairs and a key volunteer with the high school program.
Each year has a theme. Last year, students taught one another about Chanukah and Advent — a time of expectant waiting and preparation leading up to the Christmas celebration. This year, they traded knowledge about Easter and Passover.
The visitors from Pope John Paul II High School in Upper Providence Township participated in Barrack’s morning prayer service programs before breaking into smaller groups for student-led ice breakers. The introductory games quickly had the students laughing and swapping jokes with each other.
Later, all of the students gathered for a large model Passover seder during which Barrack students guided their Pope John Paul II counterparts through the ritual with whispered instructions and explanations.
“It’s nice, it’s a really good experience to open up the channels” of communication, said Josh Perloff, an 18-year-old Barrack senior from Cheltenham. “Now they get to learn about our traditions from our perspectives.”
Jane Wigoff, the theology department chairwoman at the Catholic high school, spoke about the importance of the opportunity for students of the two faiths to get to know one another on a personal level.
She added that spiritual struggle served as a common theme to unite and bond the students.
“It’s an opportunity to enrich our spirituality and learn from one another,” Wigoff said, “to make sure we work together for common good and common values.”
Rabbi Judd Levingston, director of Jewish studies at Barrack, said that after the seder, students shared their excitement about the event.
“I was especially moved during a breakout session when one of the Roman Catholic students asked a Jewish student just what it's like to grow up with such a rich heritage — it must feel like a tremendous responsibility and it must be really beautiful,” said Levingston. “Our students offered back that the Roman Catholic students have a rich heritage as well. They were all very generous with each other in expressing their appreciation for their respective traditions.”
Another interfaith seder took place in Center City a week before — but with a couple of noticable differences.
Adults replaced students and Muslims replaced Catholics at a Jewish-Muslim seder led by Rabbi George Stern, the executive director of Jewish Social Policy Action Network.
Stern said the seder took shape after he was approached by Muslim contacts interested in learning more about Passover.
“I believe that we must facilitate dialogue with people of all faiths, and, these days, most especially with Muslims, who are often treated negatively in the same way Jews were decades ago,” said Stern. “We were all ‘Zionist conspirators’ wanting to take over the world; they are all ‘terrorists.’ ”
The abbreviated seder included maror, homemade charoset, and, of course, plenty of matzah. The meal was provided by Muslim participants and was halal — the Islamic version of kosher.
Attendees discussed central themes from ‘Magid’ — the tradition of relating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt — that expanded across both religions such as slavery, exclusion and redemption.
Though Islamic participants at the seder declined to be interviewed for this article, during the ritual they volunteered similarities they noticed between the Haggadah text and the Quran.
Stern, a Reform rabbi from Mount Airy, said he hoped to hold another similar event next year.
“I was pleased with the seder as a ‘first attempt,’ ” said Stern, “and feedback from participants seemed positive.”