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Center makes Passover a hands-on experience

Gabrielle Burger, on right, director of the PJ Library at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, shows Dexter Unger, 4, a pre-schooler from Owings Mills, some items from the table while his grandmother, Sherry Unger, looks on.
Gabrielle Burger, on right, director of the PJ Library at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, shows Dexter Unger, 4, a pre-schooler from Owings Mills, some items from the table while his grandmother, Sherry Unger, looks on. (Jonathan Pitts / Baltimore Sun)

Sherry Unger was about to wheel a cart into the Owings Mills Safeway for five minutes of shopping Tuesday when a friendly voice called out: "Hi, there. Will you be celebrating Passover this year?"

She stopped to check out a display table covered with children's crafts. Her grandson Dexter, 4, donned a Passover-themed mask and posed for snapshots.

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And Unger, a resident of Owings Mills, found herself in conversation with Gabrielle Burger, an indomitably cheerful Jewish educator, about the coming holiday: what it means to her, and how she and her family might become even more involved in the local Jewish community.

Burger, a library director with the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, had helped plan the pop-up event outside the supermarket in advance of Passover, when Jews mark their deliverance from slavery in Egypt some 33 centuries ago.

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The holiday this year — 5776 on the Hebrew calendar — begins at sundown Friday.

At a time when surveys show fewer Jews affiliating with synagogues or describing themselves as religious, the Owings Mills-based education center has shifted its strategy.

"We knew membership was down — at Jewish community centers, in synagogues, everywhere," Burger says. "We decided to go out to where the people are."

Simply telling young Jewish people it's their duty to observe traditions was no longer working. So they decided to reach out in nimbler, often more lighthearted ways.

One was to stage small-scale interactive events in the community, creating opportunities for passers-by to take part in hands-on activities with Jewish themes — and to use the events as opportunities to network and converse.

Some are pop-ups — table exhibits set up in locations young adults and their children frequent.

"We asked people, 'Where are you going? Oh, to the supermarket? To the B&O [Railroad Museum]? To Port Discovery?" says Larry Ziffer, the center's CEO. "We'll meet you there, and show you something fresh and different."

Tuesday's pop-up focused on Passover.

In the shade beside the Safeway entrance, children could create and decorate construction-paper matzo holders, eat playful Passover-themed snacks or pose beside an oversized novelty box of Yehuda Matzos. (The company co-sponsored the event.)

One theme was the 10 plagues, the succession of Old Testament disasters the Jewish people believe God visited upon Egypt to soften the pharaoh's heart.

Colorful, child-sized masks representing each plague — from lice and hail to locusts and cattle disease — were spread on the table.

The images of doom didn't faze Dexter. He chose and donned the red mask for "blood," and Burger snapped his picture several times, seeking just the right angle.

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Dexter watched as his image came into view on the Polaroid film.

"It's me!" he cried out.

His grandmother said they'd take the photo home and use it for family discussion.

"This is such a wonderful way to educate the kids," Unger said. "It's informative, but right at their level. The more exposure they get, the better. If I'd known about this, I'd have brought my other grandchildren."

Another strategy the center employs is partnering with PJ Library, a program of the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a multimillion-dollar philanthropy that aims to keep Jewish individuals connected to their faith.

PJ Library sends Jewish-themed children's books to kids across North America once per month free of charge. About 2,000 of them are in the Baltimore area.

Most are on explicity Jewish subjects, but the organization also chooses secular works it believes advance such Jewish ideals as tikkun olam, the responsibility of humans to "be God's partners in perfecting the world," as Ziffer puts it.

Those include, for example, the "Bear" series by children's author Karma Wilson, including "Bear Loses a Tooth," "Bear Says Thanks," and "Bear Feels Sick."

The foundation adds an imprint explaining the connection to Jewish themes.

Burger, who directs a PJ Library branch at the Center for Jewish Education, leads a storytelling time at most pop-ups. Shortly after noon Tuesday, she read Chris Barash's "Is It Passover Yet?" to a circle of seven children.

When she finished, they demanded another — and got a spirited rendition of "Passover," an illustrated tale by Roni Schotter that takes readers through the order of events on a typical Passover, from the process of cleaning the house of all chametz — leavened foods that observant Jews may not eat during the holiday — to the serving of the special meal.

The meal, as the book shows, includes four traditional cups of wine or grape juice, each representing a promise God made to the Israelites, as well as the six foods on the seder plate, each reflecting a stage in the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt.

One is charoset, a sweet, pasty spread with nuts and raisins that is meant to recall the mortar the Israelites used while laboring in Egypt.

"It's like getting a taste of slavery," said Lisa Bodziner, the center's director of educational engagement.

The event drew 11 families and 25 people over a three-hour span, making it one of the smaller gatherings the center sponsors. Organizers say intimacy is part of the plan.

"People like a big splash, but sometimes it's all about the ripple," Burger says.

Others are bigger. A recent "PJ on the Town" event — a trip to an Orioles game — drew guests in the hundreds, providing a place for Jewish adults to socialize.

Next Wednesday, the center is scheduled to present "Matzah Madness" at Port Discovery Children's Museum.

Educators plan to present multiple ways of experiencing matzo, the unleavened, cracker-like fixture of Passover. Kids will be able to use their senses to explore different kinds of matzo, engineer their own matzo boxes and more.

Each of six activities is intended to meet age-appropriate science, engineering and math curricular objectives.

Ziffer says the center aims its efforts at children in part because studies show that young families are more likely to be unaffiliated or "on the outskirts" of Jewish life than other groups.

"We connect with adults through the kids," Ziffer says. "The parents are the ones who can nurture identification with the holiday concepts."

The theory seemed to work Tuesday.

Alli Moser of Owings Mills had Passover shopping to do, and bearing toddler son Dylan was complicating the task.

Burger grabbed their attention by offering Dylan a locust-shaped snack — celery for its body, pretzels for wings, raisins for eyes.

As Moser stood in the shade talking Passover with the educators, Dylan eyed the treat suspiciously, then took a bite and smiled.

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Everyone laughed.

"Can I give you both some charoset to take home?" Burger asked.

"Sure!" Moser said. She picked up a sample and hoisted it in a kind of toast. "Happy Passover!"

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