MANATEE -- During the eight days of Passover, which began at sundown Friday, members of the local Jewish community say they are thrilled to share with the world a remarkable story.
Thousands of years ago, the Jews were a loosely aligned and nomadic people, their lives rigidly ruled by Egyptian masters.
Then, as the Bible states, God inflicted 10 plagues upon the Egyptians in order to motivate the Pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves so they could make an Exodus out of Egypt.
One of the plagues was the killing of first-born children. But God spared the Jews. He told them to mark the door posts of their homes with the blood of a lamb and that the spirit of the Lord would pass over these homes, hence, Passover.
As they began to flee Egypt, the suddenly freed Jews did not have time to wait for their bread dough to rise. To honor that, Jews eat unleavened bread, called matzoh, during Passover.
This singular act by God, in a sense "choosing" the Jews to be given freedom, changed everything, said Rena Morano, lay leader and education director for Congregation Ner Tamid, one of several Manatee County Jewish congregations, including Temple Beth El and Chabad of Bradenton, joyously celebrating Passover this year.
"When I think of Passover, I think this is the moment when the Jews came together as one people," Morano said. "Before that, we were tribes wandering, praying to different gods. Then, Moses got the tablets from God and gave us all a direction."
Moses gathered the Jewish tribes together under a canopy of stars one night to tell them the news that one almighty God had made his presence known and offered clear direction.
As Jews looked around at each other in those early meetings, they must have felt the same feelings of connection and family that Jews now feel thousands of years later, said David Jacobson, a member of the seven-year-old Congregation Ner Tamid, which has grown to roughly 100 members.
"I think that is why some of my most powerful Passover memories are from family getting together when I was growing up," Jacobson said, hypothesizing that family meetings and feelings are part of the Jewish DNA because of those early times in the Egyptian desert. "I think about cousins and friends all coming over to our home in Staten Island."
Nowadays, many Jews celebrate the formal parts of the Passover holiday at their temple or synagogue.
This is what Jacobson and Morano did, both attending a Passover Seder at Lakeside South Clubhouse on 40th Avenue West Friday.
But the events that occurred at the temple are exactly what happened at the Jacobson's in Staten Island 50 years ago.
Seder is a word that means "steps" or chronological order, as it refers to the Passover celebration.
"The Passover Seder is divided into 15 steps," Morano said. "They are sometimes viewed as the steps from slavery toward freedom."
Three acts define Jewish community and all three are at the core of the Passover Seder, Morano said.
"We break bread, called matzoh, demonstrating our covenantal relationship to each other and God," Morano said. "We learn Torah. And we invite the poor and hungry to share our meal with us, demonstrating that our community is one which extends itself to those in need."
Inclusion, said Morano, is one of the most important words that Jews can utter out of respect for God.
"When members of Congregation Ner Tamid are asked what value our congregation exemplifies, they say 'inclusion,'" Morano said. "We have no social or religious litmus test for people to pass in order to join our congregation or to participate in our religious or social activities."
Inclusion is also one of the messages of the Passover holiday, Morano said. "The orange on the seder plate symbolizes not only females in positions of spiritual leadership, but also the inclusion of those in nontraditional households," Morano said. "That includes interfaith families, gay and lesbian families, single parents, grandparents raising grandkids, and so on,"
"The mitzvah (commandment) of the seder is to retell the story of our miraculous deliverance from Egyptian slavery," Morano added. "One of the very first things we say is: 'All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate.' We invite all who are hungry and in need to join us. This includes those who are physically hungry. We will never turn away anyone who can't afford the cost. We won't turn away those who may be emotionally needy, those who are lonely for companionship, whether it is a traveler, a college student away from home, someone who is mourning the death of a loved one, someone who has just moved to town. All are included and made to feel welcome, especially during Passover."
Congregation Ner Tamid is also doing something special this Passover season.
"There was a tragic shooting of four people at the Jewish school in Toulouse, France," Morano said. "The widow and bereaved mother (her husband and two sons were killed) has sent out a message asking people to 'bring more light into the world.' To honor her request, we are going to light a special candle, one we'll call the 'Toulouse Candle.' It will be a reminder to all that when bad things happen, instead of meeting them with anger and vengefulness, we will try with all of our actions to bring more light into this troubled world."
Congregation Ner Tamid meets regularly for at The Lodge, 4802 B, 26th St. W., Bradenton. More information is on their website, www.nertamidflorida.org.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.