Rabbi Sholom Cohen with his family.

by Linda L. Esterson

Around this time of year, you may see more of a square cracker in circulation, at the grocery store, in coworkers lunches and maybe even in references in the media. The cracker is in fact called matzah, and the flat, unleavened bread serves as a key symbol to Jewish people across the world during the Passover holiday.

The matzah and other elements of the Jewish faith are more prevalent during Passover, which begins this year at sundown on Monday, April 10, and ends at sundown on Tuesday, April 18. Passover is a time when Jewish families around the globe remember their ancestors’ time in Egypt and acknowledge their lives in slavery. They tell the story of Passover using a book called a haggadah during the ceremonial meal, called a seder, when symbolic foods are eaten.

“We try to re-experience the feeling of what it was like to be in slavery,” says Rabbi Sholom Cohen, of the Chabad-Lubavitch Center of Carroll County. “It also acknowledges our ability to be free as Jews and able to do what we want and not be persecuted.”

For eight days (or seven for Reform or the less observant), Jewish people do not eat foods with leavening like cookies, cakes and breads to commemorate their ancestors’ need to flee before their breads could rise. Many Jews eat only foods and use only products deemed “kosher for Passover,” that have been made without any contacts with foods that have leavening.

Traditionally, extended family gathers for the seder, held the first two nights of Passover (this year April 10 and 11). Dr. Steve Wiener, of Westminster, recalls family seders at home as well as community seders at Temple Beth Shalom, Carroll County’s small Taylorsville synagogue which closed in 2010. He also recalls making charoses, an apple, nut, wine and honey mixture, with his children; and now he enjoys continuing the tradition with his grandchildren.

“Passover is what has kept Jewish families a part of the Jewish faith for centuries,” Wiener says. “It’s the story of freedom and the exodus and the miracle of survival. That’s what’s kept Judaism alive.”

The Passover holiday proves meaningful for Jews around the world. Many reflect on vivid childhood memories of commemorating the holiday with family while others count community celebrations in their fondest recollections. For 15 years, Wiener volunteered in the Maryland penile system as part of the Jewish Big Brothers program that brought seders to Jewish prisoners during Passover. If a rabbi was unavailable, Wiener led the seder, and he found the effort “heartwarming.”

“It’s non-judgmental like the Chabad and inclusive,” he says. “It brings people back to basic family values and religious values.

“It’s very meaningful to be able to not only share the story and the history of the Jewish people but remind them of freedom. The prisoners are like the Jews in Egypt, not able to enjoy the beauty of their religion, similar to the original story of Passover.”

Joyce Wiener, his wife, remembers seders at her grandparents’ home where as many as 15 family members gathered together. She also recalls community seders at Beth Shalom with up to 75 people in attendance.

“Like all other Jewish holidays, it’s a nice time to get together with family and enjoy the customs, make a meal and teach the grandchildren so they can carry it on,” she says.

Her grandchildren like to find the “afikomen,” the middle of the three matzah on the seder plate which is hidden from the children who collect a prize when it’s found. The seder service also includes a section called the “Four Questions,” which are asked by children and answered to explain the significance of the Passover holiday.

Bernie Leipold remembers an Orthodox seder that featured reading the haggadah from cover to cover with about 40 relatives in Baltimore. His great grandmother raised chickens which she killed and prepared for the meal. Later, his aunt took over and the seder continued to be strict and inclusive. His parents’ seder was a little more relaxed, and once he got married in 1991, he renewed his interest and the depth of the seder.

“It’s a celebration of who we are as a Jewish people,” says David Ricklis, who lives in Eldersburg. “The idea of freedom and the Jewish people having their place in this world, we are part of that. Every Jewish family around the world is doing the same thing at the same time. I find that humbling.”

Chabad Jewish Center of Carroll County 

Nearly four years ago, Rabbi Sholom Cohen and wife Feigi Cohen were both teaching in Brooklyn, New York.

The Cohens are part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which originated in Russia 250 years ago. According to the movement’s website, Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for three intellectual faculties (chochmah—wisdom, binah—comprehension and da’at—knowledge) and Lubavitch is a philosophy, a movement, and an organization, named for the small town in Russia where it was founded and based for more than a century. In Russian, Lubavitch means “city of brotherly love,” and it conveys the essence of the responsibility and love engendered by the Chabad philosophy for every Jew.

While in Brooklyn, the Cohens were looking for a community needing help.

The couple learned that Temple Beth Shalom had closed its doors in August 2010, after more than 30 years of operation. The area lacked organized worship and they felt it a great place to “open up shop,” says the rabbi, who acknowledges knowing just one Jewish family upon their arrival.

“It was definitely a leap of faith when we came here,” says the rabbi. “We wanted to help anyone in need. Every Jew is a sacred soul… and we welcome everyone to come join us.”

The Chabad Jewish Center of Carroll County’s first official event was a menorah lighting to commemorate Chanukah, the festival of lights, in 2013. Cohen erected a grand menorah at the Sykesville Town Hall and about 50 area citizens attended.

In the three years since, their movement has grown. The Chanukah lighting in December hosted more than 250 adults and children, who feasted on latkes and donuts after the ceremonial lighting and prayer. Children made their own dreidels and edible menorahs, and the event served to “spread light and unity for the community,” the rabbi recalls.

In addition, monthly Shabbat services are hosted by the center, usually housed in the Cohens’ basement. About 30 people attend regularly. The couple also organizes activities and events like cooking classes, art projects and a Jewish women’s circle. High Holiday (the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur) services are usually housed in a local shopping center.

“The Chabad movement is all about introducing people (to the religion) and helping them learn more about Judaism,” says Bernie Leipold, a Sykesville resident who studies with Rabbi Cohen regularly. “I’ve really enjoyed it and learned a lot.”

The Passover Story

Passover calls families back to ancient times, around 1300 BCE, when the Jewish people lived in bondage in Egypt, and the country’s ruler, Pharaoh, ordered their torture and the casting of male children into the river.

The Jewish leader, Moses, appeared before Pharaoh and demanded that his people be released. Pharaoh refused, and Moses told him of God’s plan to release plagues upon the Egyptians. Pharaoh remained undeterred and God released nine plagues: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, murrain, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness.

It wasn’t until the 10th plague – the slaying of the first born sons of the Egyptians that Pharaoh relented. Moses hastily guided the Jews to freedom, and as they gathered food they did not have time to wait for their breads to rise. Instead the breads were flat crackers, and the Jewish people departed with what became matzah.

The Seder Plate On the table is a large platter that contains six items that serve as symbols for the Passover seder.

  • Three Matzos commemorate the bread which the Jews were compelled to eat before it could rise when they hastily departed Egypt. The three matzos represent the three different religious groupings of the Jewish people.
  • Roasted Egg reminds of a second offering brought to the temple on Passover.
  • Roasted Shankbone reminds of the paschal lamb, an animal sacrifice offered on the altar of the great temple in Jerusalem on Passover.
  • Moror the bitter herbs, reminding of the bitterness of slavery which Jewish ancestors endured.
  • Charoses an apple, nut, wine and honey mixture made to resemble mortar to remind of the mortar used to build Egyptian cities.
  • Karpas a green vegetable that acknowledges the arrival of spring and the gathering of the spring harvest. The vegetable is dipped in salt water to acknowledge the tears shed by the Jewish people during slavery.