As members of the B'nai Israel Congregation in downtown Baltimore on Sunday discussed preparations for the start of Passover, they also reflected on President Barack Obama's recent visit to Israel.
"It was a wonderful thing that the president went to Israel and showed his support for the state of Israel," said Rabbi Etan Mintz of B'nai Israel Congregation.
Today begins Passover, an eight-day festival commemorating Jews' emancipation from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is celebrated with Seders, symbolic foods and the recitation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
A small group of congregants met Sunday to talk about how to make utensils kosher for the holiday and the importance of keeping tradition alive through ritual. Their meeting came on the heels of Obama's first trip to Israel as president.
During a speech to students in Jerusalem Thursday, Obama affirmed the bonds between Israel and the United States as well as asked Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians. The president was heckled during the speech, but his comments were also frequently interrupted by applause as he stressed the need for peace. Only through peace could Israel experience "true security," he said, and the only way for Israel to endure and thrive is through an independent and viable Palestine.
"The vast majority of Israelis support a two-state solution," Mintz said.
But Mintz, who studied two years in Israel in the 1990s and spent many summers there, said he doesn't minimize the day-to-day threat of missile attacks that the Israeli people live under. Children there are taught to run into bomb shelters within 30 seconds and don't know of a life without bomb shelters, he said.
Obama visited Israel before his presidency, but hadn't done so again until last week. Mintz said that to truly understand Israel, one must go there.
"It was long overdue," said Becky Pepkowitz-Gilstrop, a member of the congregation. "I am very heartened."
Pepkowitz-Gilstrop backed Obama during the elections, although she said he came to office with a "very naive approach" on international affairs, particularly when it came to the Middle East.
"He's learned a lot in four years," she said, although she said the president still needs to understand that actions speak more truthfully than words. She noted that during the president's visit, rockets from Gaza struck southern Israel.
Not everyone in this small group was convinced that Obama's visit would achieve long-term results.
"It remains to be seen. I have my doubts," said Art Miller, 71, who runs a court-reporting business in Baltimore and holds a dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship.
Miller supported Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, in the last election, and said he believes Obama's trip was "politically motivated" by a president concerned more about his legacy.
"I don't want him to fail," Miller added. "I just don't think he will win."
But Mintz said Obama's comments raise hopes for peace, and come at a time in the Jewish calendar when such a message should be embraced.
"We always have to have hope, especially in the season of Passover when we talk of redemption and peace," he said. "More than anything else, the Israeli people want peace."
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