“I can tell you that Jews eat a lot, for every holiday,” Esther Dubow, a teacher at the Schechter School of Long Island in Williston Park, told a crowd of eighth-graders in the school’s gymnasium last Thursday.
The 34 Schechter students and 46 students from the neighboring St. Aidan School, a Catholic school, were there to eat — and learn about each other’s faith traditions — for the schools’ sixth annual interfaith Seder in advance of the start of Passover on Monday.
The event has helped build a relationship between the two schools and helps the students learn that they’re not as different from each other as they might think, the schools’ leaders said.
“In the world we live in, it’s an important thing for them to learn, even as eighth-graders, that we can sit and we can converse, no matter what our beliefs are,” said Eileen Oliver, principal of the St. Aidan School.
Rather than conducting all the rituals of a traditional Seder, the meal gives students time to talk about how they celebrate religious holidays, said Dubow, who is the Schechter School’s special programs coordinator. Each eighth-grade class helps organize the meal, so it changes a bit each year, Dubow said.
Schechter eighth-grader Sami Gubin started the meal by explaining that Passover, a “celebratory” eight-day holiday remembering how God protected the Israelites and led them out of Egypt, reinforces Jews’ connection to their history and traditions.
Then the students made matzo dough before sitting down for a Seder meal. As they ate, Dubow asked them to discuss the holidays and other rituals their respective religions celebrate, and how they are celebrated.
“He’s basically like the messiah. Well, not for you guys, but for us,” a Schechter student told one of her counterparts from St. Aidan when explaining the Cup of Elijah, a cup of wine traditionally used to invite the prophet Elijah to the Seder meal.
The meal ended with Schechter students leading the crowd in traditional Hebrew songs.
The interfaith Seder is one of the first opportunities Schechter students get to be “ambassadors” of the Jewish faith, said Cindy Dolgin, Schechter’s head of school.
“It’s kind of cool to get to be the teacher instead of learning, like we usually do,” said Ben Fineman of Plainview, a Schechter eighth-grader.
Schechter started hosting St. Aidan students for Seders in 2012, after moving its upper school for grades six through 12 to the Cross Street School in Williston Park in the fall of 2011.
St. Aidan, which offers kindergarten through eighth-grade classes, also hosts Schechter students for an annual prayer service around the Thanksgiving holiday.
The events have helped the two schools develop a strong relationship — which is even more important now, Dolgin said, following a spate of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and houses of worship earlier this year.
An Israeli teenager who also had U.S. citizenship was arrested last month in connection with many of the threats. A former journalist has been charged with perpetrating several others.
Because the two schools are only a block away, Dolgin said Oliver would be the second person she called in the event of an emergency, after the police.
“They have our back,” Dolgin said. “They are who will be there for us if we have a crisis.”
Casey O’Gara, a St. Aidan eighth-grader from Mineola, said she learned a lot about the Jewish faith at the Seder, the first she had ever attended.
She liked getting to talk with Schechter students directly, which doesn’t happen as much at the Thanksgiving prayer service, she said.
“It’s important to know that the other people are just like us, and that this religion, it’s a special thing to them, and we should respect it,” O’Gara said.