Passover Festival Seeks to Unite Different Faiths and Cultures

Ruth Broyde-Sharon and Delores Gray have a mission.

Broyde-Sharon, a Jewish documentary filmmaker, and Gray, an African-American minister, hope to unite African-Americans and Jews through the celebration of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the ancient Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt.

“It is a holiday that doesn’t ask people to get involved with religious beliefs,” said Broyde-Sharon, who lives in Culver City. “It’s about fighting for freedom for everybody.”

Through their common understanding of Passover as a rite of freedom and unity, the two women organized a 15-day trip to Egypt and Israel in which people of various races and religions can retrace the steps of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.

Passover began Monday night and continues for eight days. During the Seders-meals held the first and second night of Passover-a variety of objects remind the celebrants of oppression-bitter herbs dipped in salt water symbolize the tears of the slaves, and Haroset, a mixture of fruits, nuts and wine, symbolize the bricks made by the slaves.

Gray, Broyde-Sharon and about 30 other Los Angeles residents left for Israel on March 24 and returned home this week.

“It was an outstanding cultural and religious interchange, and we have developed friendships that will last us a lifetime,” Gray said Wednesday. “We learned how people can come together and not give up personal beliefs and not be intimidated by others’ beliefs. Passover is a holiday everyone can share in and celebrate its meaning and purpose.”

For the last two years, Broyde-Sharon has been collecting footage for a documentary on Seders celebrated by Jews and non-Jews around the world. She met Gray last year while filming a Seder of 600 black Christians at the nondenominational Strait Way Church in Watts.

During the Seder, Broyde-Sharon told the congregants of her vision of an international Passover celebration.

“The Exodus metaphor is so powerful, it alone could have been responsible for the creation of Western civilization,” Broyde-Sharon said. “So many people respond to it, and I thought why not have an international Passover celebration, where people from all different colors and religious backgrounds sit around in Israel celebrating the rights of freedom.”

Gray, 47, who is also a travel agent specializing in tours to Israel, said she was inspired by Broyde-Sharon’s idea and approached her to help organize the trip. As a result, the two women began planning the “Festival of Freedom.”

“I had a prophesy that I would lead an unusual tour to the Holy Land, which would involve blacks and Jews,” Gray said. “I realized it was no accident that brought us together-this is greater than we are, and we are sisters in this project.”

Gray said she sees the similarities between Jewish and black oppression as a binding force between the two cultures, and she hopes the communities can join in their common past.

“There is a real affinity between African-Americans and Jews,” Gray, of Van Nuys, said. “But now there is such a rift between us. Ruth and I hope ultimately to bring a healing between African-Americans and Jews.”

Broyde-Sharon and Gray said they tried to include everyone who wanted to go on the trip, and although most participants paid their own way, some who couldn’t afford it were helped through contributions.

Eric Green, a 25-year-old free-lance writer whose mother is Jewish and whose father is of American Indian and African-American ancestry, said he wanted to be a part of the “Festival of Freedom” because of its focus on the similarities between cultures.

“What attracted me was the idea of bringing people together from different cultural, racial and religious backgrounds in a context that focuses on common aspirations of freedom and common desires of understanding how historical experience shapes expectations today,” he said.

Green also said he hopes celebrations such as these can lead to better communication and understanding between the African-American and Jewish cultures.

“Both groups don’t know their own or each other’s history, and don’t understand the significant differences or similarities, which I think are deeper than people understand,” he said. “This sort of pilgrimage and celebration of freedom is the kind of event that has a potential to cross cultural boundaries.”

Pastor Charles C. Queen, who led the Seder in Watts where Gray and Broyde-Sharon met, has been celebrating Passover for the last three years and decided to participate in the international Seder in Jerusalem to learn more about Passover.

“In order to see the real meaning of Christianity, I must go back to my roots, trying to get the best information as I can,” said Queen, 62. “I do that by celebrating Pesach.”

Queen said he feels religion is the only way to heal the differences within warring communities.

“The only way to eliminate the friction that is the undercurrent (between African-Americans and Jews) is through religion as opposed to the civic aspect, through a deeper knowledge in the God we serve,” he said. “There is such a commonality between the Jew and the Afro-American, we need to come together, because we have suffered frictions in the past. This trip is part of a healing.”

Others said they merely wanted the experience of celebrating Passover in the place where it all began.

“I’ve never been to Israel, and there’s a real drawing and an appeal to there,” said Donald Altman, a Los Angeles federal administrative law judge who is Jewish but is married to a Catholic woman.

Gray and Broyde-Sharon hope that in the next few years people around the world will celebrate Passover through satellite transmissions from Israel.

Above all, Broyde-Sharon and Gray hope their friendship and cooperation can translate to a stronger bond between different ethnicities.

“People ask us who is behind this, what organization, and we say God,” Broyde-Sharon said. “Everybody laughs, but it’s true-two crazy women who have the same vision. Whatever it is about us, this is our mission.”

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