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Freshman Theology Students Participate in Seder Meal

In April, approximately 70 freshman theology students participated in a Seder meal honoring the Jewish Passover as part of the curriculum for Sacred Stories I: The Old Testament. Taken in the second semester of freshman year, this course exposes students to the story and themes of salvation history by providing them with a strong foundation in Hebrew Scriptures.
“The goal of the Seder meal was to familiarize our students with the Jewish tradition,” says Rev. James Ackerman, SJ, who teaches Sacred Stories. “Learning about our Jewish neighbors—what they do and why—increases understanding.”

In the weeks leading up to the event, students learned the history of Passover and the origins of the meal’s symbolic elements, which are performed in a certain order and explained during the meal. Among them, charoset, a combination of grated apples in a sweet white mixture, symbolizes the bricks and mortar over which the Israelites labored while enslaved in Egypt. Matzah, an unleavened bread, calls to mind the haste of their departure from Egypt. Salt water represents the sorrow and tears cried, while eggs symbolize rebirth. As is tradition, a chair is left empty for the hoped-for Elijah. “I wanted to make it a learning experience that was as close to the real thing as possible,” Fr. Ackerman says.  

An invitation distributed to students in advance set a reverent tone for the event: Please come with an open mind and respectful heart. I invite you to enter into the spirit of this sacred meal.

“I was sensitive to the need to be respectful of the solemnity of the occasion,” explains Fr. Ackerman.  

Students took turns reading prayers and sharing the four cups of blessings, which are based on the four “I wills” of Exodus 6:6-7. Before drinking each cup (grape juice was used in lieu of wine), students recited a traditional Hebrew blessing: ba-ruch A-ta A-do-nai El-ohei-nu Me-lek ha-a-lam bo-ree pree ha-ga-fen [“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who created the fruit of the vine.”]

“The students enjoyed it,” says Fr. Ackerman. “It was fun and educational.”

“I think experiences like this are valuable because they allow us to explore the history of our religion in a different way,” says Tim Carroll ’20. “They help us understand why the Seder meal was so special to the Israelites and why it continues to be sacred for Jewish people today.”

After the meal, students had the unique opportunity to participate in a foot-washing ritual based on events in the Gospel of John 13:1-15, which details Jesus’ celebration of Passover, now remembered as the Last Supper. Fr. Ackerman points out, “Jesus experienced Passover as a Jewish man, and the Catholic Mass is based on a lot of the traditions of the Passover.” Today, the Last Supper continues to be honored during the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass and also on Holy Thursday.

“Passover is a common ground between Judaism and Christianity,” Fr. Ackerman adds. The intention is that students are able to draw these connections and gain insight into their own faith and the faith tradition of others.

“The Seder meal was really cool and interesting to experience,” says Francesca Hill ’20. “My favorite part was when one person would introduce the food and then we would pass it around. I liked how there was a purpose to why we ate each food item and I was glad we got to learn that. This experience helped give me a glimpse of another religion's tradition and how it relates to my own faith.”
 
Fr. Ackerman enjoys hosting the meal each year because students leave with an expanded worldview and a deeper understanding. “An activity that involves students eating, praying and participating is better than me just lecturing on it. It makes a lasting impression.”  
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