"This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let those who are hungry come in and partake. Let all who are in need come and celebrate the Passover."
These words will be uttered around the world tonight as Jewish families gather around their tables for the Passover Seder, a ritual celebrating the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery.
What was once a mandate to feed the poor has evolved into a tradition for many of inviting people - often complete strangers, who would otherwise be alone - to their Seders.
"People expect that everybody goes home to family, but we know that is not true," said Elizabeth Green of Pikesville, who with her husband, children and parents will welcome a married couple on the first night of Passover and a single man on the second. "We see it as a way to offer people who can't get home and don't have family an opportunity to be with family."
Family is central to Passover because it is celebrated not in a synagogue, but around a meal at home.
"Pesach [Hebrew for Passover] is the quintessential family experience," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville. "This is a night of the year that a Jew does not want to be alone."
The tradition of inviting strangers to Seder has its roots in the Jewish communities of what is now Eastern Europe. "In medieval times, poor people would come to the synagogue on the eve of Passover, and they would be invited into people's homes," Wohlberg said.
A modern interpretation of that tradition challenges Jewish families to practice a hospitality that stands against a world filled with loneliness, alienation and spiritual neediness.
Locally, those connections are made through Share a Seder, a program that matches people who want to attend a Seder with families who would like to have them as guests. Share a Seder is a joint project of the Jewish Information and Referral Service, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council. Now in its third year, it will match more than a dozen guests with hosts this year.
Ellen Miller, coordinator of the information service, said the trickiest part is matching levels of religious observance. Most of the host families tend to be Orthodox, the most traditionally observant, and someone who is Reform, Conservative or unaffiliated might not be comfortable with that.
"We also ask about the age of the people involved" in order to make a better match, Miller said. "Some people have to be in walking distance because they don't ride on the holidays."
That was the case for Myra Zerwitz, whose family was matched with a man from Mount Vernon who is becoming more religiously observant and did not want to drive to the Seder. The solution? He's moving in with the Zerwitz family for three days.
"I hate to have people alone at this time of celebration," she said. "Also, it brings an added element to our Seder."
Green, who is opening her Pikesville home to guests for the third year, is continuing a tradition that started with her parents, Carol and Sheldon Glusman, who will also join her for dinner this year. Years ago, the Glusmans moved to New Haven, Conn., where they had no family and started inviting others just to fill up the table. "And we've been doing it ever since," said Carol Glusman.
They've had a rich assortment of personalities over the years. One year they invited some Catholic nuns from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Then there was the time a family relative asked if she could bring a friend.
"We had no idea if he was Jewish or not Jewish," Glusman said. As usual, they read the Haggadah, the Seder script, some in English and some in Hebrew. Her husband invited the guest to read a portion, which he did in flawless Hebrew.
"It turned out he was doing postdoctoral work in Semitic languages," she said. "After that, my husband kept pretty much to English."
The Green/Glusman family is never sure how many to expect. There always seem to be last-minute additions. No matter, everyone is welcome.
"A soup is a soup and a brisket is a brisket, so it doesn't matter how many people show up," Glusman said. "It always manages to be more than enough."