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Believers seek common ground as Passover, Easter converge this weekend

When Ilise Marrazzo was growing up, Easter was one of her favorite holidays. But the celebration often left her feeling perplexed.

Her father was Catholic, and she loved candy and Easter egg hunts as much as the next kid. But as a Conservative Jew, she knew few others who observed even the cultural aspects of the Christian holiday.

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"I was the only kid at my synagogue who did anything for Easter, and when I asked my rabbi about it, he had no interest in discussing it," the Patterson Park woman said. "It made me feel like an outsider."

The next three days may prove a boon to people such as Marrazzo, one of a growing number of Americans who live with one foot on either side of the Judeo-Christian divide.

The Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week overlap this weekend. Passover starts at sundown Friday — Good Friday to Christians — and most Christians will celebrate Easter on Sunday.

The convergence happens about once every three or four years.

Marrazzo, her husband, Paul Valdez, who is Catholic, and their daughters, Amelia, 7, and Juliana, 4, will recognize both. So will other interfaith families.

A few Christian congregations will offer their version of the Passover seder. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Baltimore spends four hours one night tying the Jewish holiday to the story of Christ's resurrection, using four languages in the process.

"We're not the only generation or the first generation to be followers of Christ," said the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, the Roman Catholic priest who conducts that service. "We take our place in a tradition that goes all the way back to … when God created man, to when he gave the commandments to Moses."

Alienation

On Passover, Jews commemorate their forebears' liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. The name refers to the night described in the Book of Exodus when God passed over the homes of the Hebrews as he inflicted a deadly plague on their tormentors.

One Sunday about 13 centuries later, a Jewish carpenter rode a donkey into Jerusalem to begin preparing for the holiday. For Christians, that was the start of what would be called Holy Week, a span in which Jesus shared a final meal with his apostles (Holy Thursday), was crucified (Good Friday) and rose from the dead (Easter Sunday).

Jews and Christians schedule their holidays according to different calendars. Jews historically have followed the lunar calendar. Christians diverged from that tradition in the fourth century.

As a result, Passover and Easter coincide in an irregular pattern, about three times per decade.

Fitting, perhaps, for faiths so intertwined but so clearly distinct: Jews view Jesus as a influential rabbi who was executed; to Christians, he's the son of God.

"Kind of hard to reconcile those two" beliefs, Marrazzo, a public health official for the state of Maryland, said with a chuckle.

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She should know — the distinction ran through her life. Before her parents married, her father converted to Judaism, in part to keep things unified.

"He always said you can't have two religions in one family; it's too confusing for everyone," she recalled.

Marrazzo celebrated the major Christian holidays with her father's parents, enjoying the magic of the Christmas Mass and the joys of Easter egg hunts, while attending Hebrew school and observing the principal Jewish holidays, including Passover, with her family.

Her two faith traditions felt mutually exclusive.

"It all felt so normal, but I also felt I never actually belonged," she said.

Allysha Lorber knows that feeling of alienation, if in a different way.

The Towson landscape architect grew up nominally Lutheran and attended church with a grandmother. But the services failed to excite her, the clergy seemed fixated on "thou shalt nots," and she could never get past the idea that, in Christianity, there was only one path to salvation — believing in the divinity of Jesus.

"It seemed too exclusionary," she said.

As an adult, she fell in love with a man who had been raised Jewish but who, like her, had drifted away from organized religion.

After they married and had two daughters, they decided it was time to find a way to clarify what they believed as a family.

It would, they concluded, be a faith community, but neither doctrinaire Christian nor traditionally Jewish; it should teach what they considered to be the best from each tradition.

They were seeking a way to reach across the faith divide.

Connection

During the early 20th century, fewer than 20 percent of U.S. Jews married outside their faith. A century later, that number had ballooned to 44 percent. Since 2005, 58 percent of Jewish Americans have married a partner of a different faith, the Pew Center for Research in Washington reported in 2013.

Marrazzo joined that number when she married Valdez, a pharmaceutical salesman who had attended 16 years of Catholic school and, despite a few doctrinal qualms, never left the faith.

Both couples, now with kids, faced an array of questions: Can Jewish families enjoy Christmas trees and Easter bunnies? What meaning does Passover have to Christians? How do you explain the death of Jesus and its implications to children? In what community might their families belong?

Both got a clue when they learned of a Baltimore synagogue whose rabbi offered a service they'd never heard of: a six-week workshop for interfaith couples.

They attended, began developing some answers, and joined the Kol HaLev — Hebrew for "Voice of the Heart" — one of a handful of reconstructionist synagogues in the area.

Like most "recon" communities, Kol HaLev, which rents space in a Presbyterian church, grounds its teachings in the Torah. But members view liturgy less as divine law than as a collection of wisdom writings that can be applied today.

"Instead of observance, or obligation, I want to think about connection," said Geoff Basik, the rabbi of the eight-year-old synagogue.

The Lorbers and the Valdez-Marrazzos are among the 80 or so families who belong to Kol HaLev — and who have found that reconstructionist Judaism, unlike other branches of Judaism, welcomes interfaith families and converts, allows rabbis to conduct interfaith marriages, and sponsors a Hebrew school at which more than half the children have some Christianity in their backgrounds.

To Basik, this weekend reflects a belief he projects all the time — that Judaism and Christianity are great faith traditions that have more similarities than differences.

We'd do well, he said, to remember that Exodus 12:38 tells us the hordes who fled Egypt were not all Israelites, but a "mixed multitude" — "those are code words for 'everybody'" — and that the journey they took is not unlike the one Jesus took in the Resurrection story: from pain and uncertainty toward a land of promise.

That's why he's delighted to know some of his congregants will recognize the two distinct traditions this weekend.

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"The truth is, all of us are wanderers — people on our way, works in progress," he said. "Don't both holidays speak very eloquently to that?"

Immersion

Seven years ago, Lawrence, the pastor at St. Vincent de Paul, began weaving more Old Testament teachings into Holy Week worship.

He starts Holy Thursday services by donning a yarmulke and offering a two-hour, conservative-style Jewish seder, with the customary succession of symbolic foods.

Then he puts on priestly robes, leads the gathering of about 200 up to the sanctuary, and conducts the Liturgy of the Last Supper, a Mass during which he washes the feet of 12 congregants, just as Jesus is said to have done for his apostles.

Passover, he says, marks the birth of the Jewish nation. Jesus, an observant Jew, was celebrating it at the Last Supper. The meal presaged his betrayal, murder and the resurrection Christians believe transformed the world.

"In that total experience, from 6 to 10 p.m., you will have prayed and sung in English, Hebrew, Latin and in Greek. It's establishing the roots," he said.

Lawrence is also one of the few Catholic pastors who still offer a full Easter Vigil — in his case, a 16-hour immersion experience that begins with a bonfire outside the church Saturday night, incorporates readings from the Old and New Testament traditions over a period of hours, and concludes with Easter Mass on Sunday morning.

"Not everyone can make the whole thing. I just say, 'Do what you can,'" said Lawrence.

Marrazzo, Valdez and their daughters will attend a Passover seder tonight, then enjoy a backyard Easter egg hunt Sunday.

The Lorbers and their daughters, Kalmia, 9, and Abigail, 7, will do much the same.

Allysha Lorber said their synagogue fosters "love, family, morality, health, wellness, environment, egalitarianism, peace, empathy, modesty" and more.

"Our ethics are the foundation from which we make daily decisions, large and small, helping us decide how to 'do the right thing,'" she said.

Basik calls that a worthwhile challenge any time of year.

"There's so much for us to experience as human beings," he said.

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