More than any other holy day on the Jewish calendar, Passover, which begins April 10 and continues for eight days, is the ancient religion's most family-friendly time of the year.
That's because members of the Congregation Beit Tikvah and other followers of the Jewish faith in and around the Towson area celebrate the holiday at home with families and friends by enjoying a Passover Seder — a structured meal arranged as a "theatrical experience that involves eating special and sacred foods to illustrate the storytelling," according to the congregation's rabbi, Larry Pinsker.
Those foods traditionally served on the first — and sometimes the second — night of Passover include unleavened bread called matzah, a piece of shank bone representing a sacrificial lamb called zeroa, a hard-boiled egg, bitter herbs named maror and a mixture of nuts, apples and pears known as charoset.
"Passover is the most observed of the Jewish high holidays," said Pinsker, who is just completing his fourth year at Beit Tikvah. "It's family time in a very special way."
Beit Tikvah is a three-decades-old Jewish Reconstructionist congregation in the Corner Community Center in Roland Park, said Cockeysville resident Esther Miller, the secretary for the congregation's board of directors and its religious practices committee chair.
"I stumbled upon Beit Tikvah in 1988 when they were running a car wash in Towson," she added.
It is one of two such denominations in the area; Kol HaLev, located in the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church on North Charles Street, is the other.
Reconstructionists are roughly 2 percent of the North American Jewish population, Pinsker said, adding that Beit Tikvah is "a small, vibrant and creative congregation."
Beit Tikvah — "House of Hope" in Hebrew — shares the facility with several Christians groups, such as the Saint Andrews Christian Community, the Mt. Olivet Christian Church, First Christian Church of Baltimore and the Gathering of Baltimore.
Beit Tikvah's original founders were five Jewish women, who had met at the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. Given Pinsker's love of science fiction, it's a perfect fit, considering that the rabbi hosts a lecture series at Beit Tikvah on the connection between science fiction movies and religion.
On April 1, Pinsker screened the movie, "Arrival," while "The Man from Earth" is slated for April 29.
Beit Tikvah, which does not hold a community Seder, sponsors a service for people without a family to join others for the Passover meal.
'Responsible for each other'
An integral part of the Seder is the retelling of the story of the Jews' liberation from Egyptian slavery more than 3,300 years ago, although Pinsker said the symbolism of escaping slavery is very relevant to current-day Jews striving toward spiritual self-improvement and strengthening their commitment to social justice.
"The journey of the Jews out of slavery in Egypt ultimately focuses on the purpose of freedom, which they learn that to serve God means they must become responsible for each other," Pinsker said. "In freedom, I have an obligation to care about my neighbor. Freedom is the ultimate concern, and indifference about the fate of others is a shallow form of being human — the opposite of love. Passover is about feeling accountable for justice. It's a gathering to remind us that there are elevated purposes in life."
Jennifer Shapiro, a 45-year-old Beit Tikvah member from Ruxton Heights, said she hosts a Seder for an extended group of family and friends that could include up to 20 people. The senior Medicare manager said that she left the Reform congregation founded by her great-grandparents to join Beit Tikvah more than a decade ago.
"It just felt more intimate here," the Oberlin College grad said. "And I knew that joining came with an obligation to give back to something that would give back so much to me."
Her son, Jonah, 16, had his bar mitzvah at Beit Tikvah and her 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah there as well, she said.
East Towson resident Karen Linder-Staubs said that she originally joined the congregation when it was located on Loch Raven Boulevard in the mid-1980s because it was convenient to where she was then living, in northeast Baltimore.
Both of her children, Jacob, 17, and Savannah, 23, were brought up in the congregation and her husband, Ken, converted to Judaism.
She celebrates one of the first two nights of Passover with fellow congregants and the other with her immediate family, she said.
Linder-Staubs added that she looks at the Seder and the stories told at the Seder as her personal Egypt.
"I look inside myself at the things that imprison me," she said. "The Passover story is an allegory for achieving self liberation from those ideas and behavior patterns which hinder our ability to achieve our highest potential."