As Jews gather around seder tables this week to retell the ancient Passover story of God's deliverance from slavery in Egypt, they are commanded to observe the Festival of Freedom as if they were coming out of a present-day, metaphorical Egypt.
"Even when we are thriving or successful, we can't forget that we were once in Egypt," said Rabbi Danielle Upbin of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater.
"However good it is now, our lives can turn on a dime, so when we tell the story of the Exodus, we tell it in the present tense. We make it pertinent to the moment. When we experience the seder, we're not just telling a historical event, or a quasihistorical event, but it is a real psychic and spiritual and emotional experience.''
For contemporary communities, making the seder relevant can take any number of forms, from traditional gatherings at home, synagogues or temples to those designed specifically for women, others that emphasize themes like social justice, or even those that veer toward the unconventional and comedic.
In Pinellas County, two weeks before the start of Passover, 250 women gathered at Congregation Beth Shalom for a Community Women's Seder that gave the Exodus experience a feminine perspective.
"It's important for females to tell the story, because no one in history has ever told their story,'' Rabbi Upbin said during in interview.
"It's powerful to come together in the women's seder, because it is celebrating our own role and place in history.''
The first communitywide women's seder in Pinellas County was held 13 years ago, guided by a Haggadah, or service book, written for the occasion and honoring the matriarchs of Jewish history.
Cyndi Silverman, who chaired this year's celebration, began working on the event last fall.
"It is a very fun event, women of all ages, all different walks of life, coming to celebrate the Festival of Freedom,'' she said.
This year's theme, "Coming of Age," got added meaning with the participation of teenagers from area congregations. Jessica Krop, Elena Prieto and Talia Sager of Congregation Beth Shalom, Maya Jacobson of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, and Mariel Levine of Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater reflected on the importance of faith and sang When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt.
The young women represent the future, Silverman said. "This is whom we're passing the torch to.''
Upbin herself had been inspired by the late Debbie Friedman, a singer, songwriter and leader in the Jewish feminist movement.
"I had been to a seder of hers in New York. It was inspiring to see 500 women rising up and singing and dancing with timbrels in hand. Many of them brought their timbrels from home,'' she said.
"The tambourine at the women's seder has become a sacred object, because it links us to Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Moses, who took timbrel in hand and led the women in song at the crossing of the Red Sea. There is an early rabbinic teaching, a midrash, that asks the question, where did the women get the timbrels? The answer is that the women of that generation who left Egypt were so righteous, they anticipated that a miracle would be performed for them, so they took their drums and timbrels with them. They had them ready to praise God."
Also central to women's celebrations is Miriam's Cup, a ceremonial goblet that is placed with the Elijah Cup, which is a standard on seder tables. Miriam's Cup is filled with water and is a symbol of Miriam's well, the source of water for the Israelites in the desert. The Elijah Cup, which is filled with wine, symbolizes future messianic times, Upbin said.
Upbin, who led the Pinellas seder with Cantor Deborah Jacobson of Temple Ahavat Shalom, Cantor Jennifer Duretz Peled of Temple B'nai Israel and guest soloist Lily Lucey of Congregation Beth Shalom, thinks women's seders have profound significance in modern-day society.
"There is value in having a women's seder as a response to the perpetual violence against women here in this country, even in our own neighborhoods, and abroad, including crimes of domestic violence, selling women in the sex slave trade, the systematic rape of women in Africa, silencing of women's voices and stifling of women's education,'' the rabbi said later.
"The women's seder ritually marks and celebrates the experience of moving from slavery to freedom for those women who have succeeded in breaking societal and historical boundaries, while acknowledging those women who have yet to break those chains of bondage."
Then there's levity
At the Rusty Pelican on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, the men and women who organize the annual "un" seder have no more lofty purpose than to have a good time and create a sense of community. Rande Friedman, who started the tradition six years ago with a group of friends who like to perform — the Kosher Hams — said Tuesday's celebration will feature Dorothy "Moses" Goldstein in The Wizard of Shnozz and a cast of characters, including the menschkins, whom she leads out of slavery.
"It's a lot of fun,'' Friedman said of the popular event that raises money for charity. "We're going to limit it to 200. The reason is, if we get any more people, we're going to have to put on a better show.''
And a push for justice
For St. Pete Beach resident Ann Haendel, Passover is another occasion to remember those less fortunate. Haendel, a retiree, has volunteered in Africa, Southeast Asia and India for American Jewish World Service, an international organization that works to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in developing countries. This Passover she'll ask hosts Mary Ann and Bruce Marger in St. Petersburg to include social justice readings from the organization at their seder.
"My family and friends always try to make the seder relevant,'' she said. "We do that by drawing a parallel to oppressed people today and the responsibility to act. The Passover seder is for retelling the story so the message gets communicated to the younger people present.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.