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Passover rituals take on childlike wonder at Temple Beth-El's Early Childhood Center

ST. PETERSBURG — Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, with family gatherings at the Seder table and the retelling of the ancient story of liberation from slavery, was observed in joyous, childlike fashion Wednesday.

Standing before a mostly attentive audience of 74 children at Temple Beth-El's Early Childhood Center, Rabbi Michael Torop performed magic tricks, called on the assistance of puppets and led the singing of the traditional Passover song, Dayenu (It would have been enough).

A highlight was the song about frogs that required much hopping and shouts of "ribbit!''And for those who didn't know, "Pharaoh had frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes," and yikes! "Frogs in his bed."

This, said Randi Nash-Ortiz, Early Childhood Center director, was an interactive Passover Seder, designed to give the children, who range from 1 to 5 years old, a hands-on experience of Passover traditions.

"We keep it very simple, focusing on the concrete symbols of the Passover Seder," Torop said.

"We use song and we use the element of entertainment and surprise to keep their attention and make sure they walk away with a sense of the core elements of the story and a positive experience."

The rabbi said the essential message of the holiday is that the Jewish people experienced slavery in Egypt and from slavery went to freedom.

"And being free places an obligation on us to work to make sure that all people are free," he said.

Much preparation went into Wednesday's model Seder, held a few days before the eight-day holiday, which begins today at sundown. Long rows of low tables held decorations imagining the parting of the Red Sea. Little People figures were in place making the crossing. Blue disposable plates, with pictures of the symbolic items that are put on what is usually a central Seder plate, were at each child's place setting.

The Seder plates held half a boiled egg, a dollop of gefilte fish, haroseth, which Nash-Ortiz made with chopped apples, cinnamon, grape juice and walnuts — the latter omitted for the babies and children with nut allergies — and parsley.

Small cups of diluted grape juice were substituted for the holiday's traditional sweet wine. The tiniest participants had theirs in sippy cups. A Passover tradition is to drink four cups of wine as the Seder progresses.

As part of the holiday, Jews are commanded to retell the Passover story, passing it down from generation to generation.

At Temple Beth-El's Early Childhood Center, said Nash-Ortiz, it might go something like this: "There was a man who made very bad choices. He refused to free the Jews and God sent 10 terrible plagues to Egypt and after the very last plague, Pharaoh told Moses and the slaves to leave Egypt and God helped Moses to lead them over the desert and across the sea."

Livia Wein, whose grandsons, Noah, 5, and Eitan, 3, attend the Early Childhood Center, was one of the volunteers who helped Nash-Ortiz prepare for Wednesday's model Seder.

"My grandson actually asked what's a model Seder," she said.

"I said, that's so you can learn how to do the real Seder on Friday night with the family," said Wein, who will have 16 people at her Seder table, including her mother, Helen Kahan, 95, who is a Holocaust survivor.

Melanie Bowman, who brought along her daughter, Julia, 5, a former Early Childhood Center student who now attends Shorecrest Preparatory School, was pleased with the day's program.

"I think it inspires a love of learning about Jewish culture and the story of Passover, which is arguably the most important story of our religion," she said.