The yearly celebration of the Jews' release from slavery in Egypt contains a little more meaning for some this year, now that peace and freedom have returned to parts of the Middle East.

"This year, we will give thanks to God for our freedom, as well as giving freedom to our young men and women and prisoners of war who came back safely from the gulf," said Al Stein, cantor of Beth Shalom in Taylorsville.

Passover, celebrated from the 14th to the 22nd in the Jewish month Nisan, commemorates the Jews' release from slavery duringthe time of Pharaoh.

"The biggest thing was becoming a free people," said Jamie Wehler, president of B'nai Israel Reform congregation in Westminster. "It had been a very hard existence for them -- they had seen their children killed and worked as slaves.

"It was a terrible experience."

This year, the holiday begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sundown April 6. The eight-night celebration usually opens with a Seder, a special meal eaten with family and friends.

"Conservative or orthodox members would have a Seder on the first two nights,"said Joanne Goldwater, adviser for the Jewish

Student Union at Western Maryland College. "The reform division would celebrate only on the first."

The meal follows a special order, with prayers and reading from the Haggadah, a small book which tells of the Jewish exodus.

History relates that the Egyptian Pharaoh, or king, had ordered all male Jewish children to be killed at birth. The infant Moses, however, was spared when his family placed him in the river in a small basket.

He was found by the Pharaoh's daughter, who adopted him.

When Moses grew up, he realized his true heritage and asked that theJewish people be released from bondage.

Pharaoh refused, so God imposed 10 plagues on the Egyptian people.

The last plague -- the death of the first-born male in each Egyptian family -- convinced Pharaoh to let Moses lead the slaves out of the country.

Jewish families were spared the final plague because God directed them to place a mark on the doors of their homes. Upon seeing the mark, the "angel ofdeath" "passed over" the Jewish residence.

After the Israelites left Egypt, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army to recapture the former slaves. When they reached the Red Sea, the Israelites were trapped between the waters and the approaching army.

However, God parted the sea so Moses could lead his people across on dry land. The waters closed again when the Israelites were safely on the other side, swallowing up and drowning Pharaoh's warriors.

In telling the story, different parts are given to different members of the family during the Seder, Wehler said.

"My favorite part is at one point, theyoungest child asks Four Questions -- basically, 'Why is this night different from other nights?' " she said. "The child that asks these questions usually sings them in Hebrew."

In her own family, Wehlersaid she misses the atmosphere of a young child asking the questions.

"My youngest child is 17, with a deep, booming voice," she said."We're sort of waiting for the next generation."

Giving children parts in the ceremony ties them into the celebration and helps them learn the history, she said.

"The generations have always been so strong in Judaism and this ties the past with the future," Wehler said. "That is part of Passover, too."

As the story is related, special foods are eaten that remind modern Jews of what their ancestors suffered in Egypt, said Stein.

"On every table, there is a Seder plate -- a special plate that holds symbolic foods that remind us of the lives of the Israelites," he said.

Stein said the plate contains apiece of parsley or potato cooked in salt water; a roasted shank bone; a hard-boiled, roasted egg; bitter herbs, usually horseradish, dipped in a mixture of apple, nuts, cinnamon and wine, and three pieces of matzah bread placed in front of the leader of the seder.

The parsley or potato, known as karpas, represents the Israelites poor dietwhile in Egypt, Stein said. The salt water reminds modern Jews of the tears their ancestors cried while in slavery.

"Moror, or bitter herbs, symbolizes the bitter times the Israelites had in Egypt," he said. "The brown color of the Charoses reminds us of the mortar the slaves used in building cities under Pharaoh."

Each slice of matzah,or unleavened bread, represents one of the three Jewish classes: theKohein, or high priests; the Levy, or assistant to the Kohein, and the Yisroel, or regular people, he said.

Four cups of wine for eachparticipant are also part of the ceremony.

"Most of the ritual attached deals with freedom -- things free people were permitted, such as a full cup of wine or several, in fact," said Wehler. "We use it as a time to reaffirm the freedoms we have and offer prayers for thosewho don't have those freedoms.

"We're opening the door for Elijah, the prophet, to come, hoping he will bring peace."

In her family, the tradition has evolved to add a fourth piece of matzah to the place for the Jews in Russia who are not allowed to practice their religion.

While members of the B'nai Israel congregation will celebrate with their individual families, Beth Shalom will have about 130 people at their Seder Saturday night.

Beth Shalom will open Passover week at 7 a.m. Friday with Sium B'chorim -- a special service for thefirst-born male of each family.

The last service, at 10 a.m. April 6, will be Yiskor -- a memorial service for family members who havedied.

Among the guests at Beth Shalom will be the Rev. Ted Cassidy of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Sykesville.

"It's a great time when the holidays come together like this," Stein said, noting that Easter falls in the same weekend. "It's a true sense of Americana, with all worshiping at the same time."

For information on Beth Shalom, call 875-2800; B'nai Israel may be reached at 848-3821.

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