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Deep South Christians Take Seat at Seder Table

A shofar blast is not the traditional opening of a Passover Seder. Neither is an invocational prayer to Jesus. But Christ Our Passover is no ordinary Passover gathering.

Robert Somerville, director of the Huntsville, Ala.-based Awareness Ministry, explains the reason that matzo is eaten on Passover to evangelicals gathered for Seder in 2007.

When some 1,300 Christians take their seats inside the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Ala., on April 15, they will have assembled into one of the largest Christian Passover celebrations in the country.

“I explain the bitter herbs, I explain the unleavened bread,” evangelical pastor Robert Somerville, director of the Huntsville-based Awareness Ministry, told the Forward. “With the unleavened bread, God wants us to be unified. I don’t care if you are white bread, wheat bread or bagel; we are one people and together.” Since Somerville began holding Passover gatherings more than 20 years ago, Christ Our Passover has developed into an annual display of Christian ecumenism drawing more than 70 organizations from across a variety of Christian denominations. But this year, for the first time, there will also be a handful of members from Huntsville’s Jewish community in attendance — and not all the city’s Jews are happy about it.

“It is a total taking over and arrogation to themselves of the entire concept of the Seder. It’s totally Christological,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Ballon of Huntsville’s Reform congregation, Temple B’nai Sholom.

Across the country, Jewish communities are grappling with an outpouring of evangelical support, particularly for Israel. Conservative evangelical leaders like Rev. John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, have been greeted as committed allies of the Jewish state but also as unwelcome interlopers with self-serving agendas. Many of these dynamics are playing out in tiny Huntsville at a time of year when Jews and gentiles unite around the Passover table.

At this year’s Passover celebration, the Jewish Federation of Huntsville and North Alabama will receive a donation, collected at the banquet, that is expected to exceed $10,000. Laura King, the federation’s president, and Margaret Anne Goldsmith, a past president of Huntsville’s defunct Jewish Community Council, will attend the banquet to receive the offering and a plaque. Several other board members may attend, too.

Sharp disagreements have emerged among Jewish leaders in Huntsville over whether the federation’s board should accept the donation or even attend an event that cloaks a traditional Jewish ritual in the theology of Christian worship.

Ballon, who has lead the criticism, is the only full time rabbi in Huntsville, which has about 300 affiliated Jewish families and a small Conservative synagogue, and a Reform congregation that dates to the late 1800s. In his pulpit and synagogue newsletter, Ballon spoke out against the Seder.

“[T]he conflict becomes complicated by the fact that local people whom we know and live with are nice enough on a local basis but reflect by association the distaste we have of others with whom their movement associates,” Ballon wrote.

At a federation board meeting in last month, Ballon and three other local Jewish communal leaders confronted the rest of the board members on their decision to cooperate with Somerville, warning that the evangelical community’s politics and values are out of sync with those of the liberal Jewish community. While King will accept the donation as federation president, the board decided that individual members would determine on their own whether to attend.

One of the leaders who joined Ballon at the federation meeting was Paul Gross, a retired welding supervisor and a former president of the Jewish Community Council and of Temple B’nai Sholom.

“They wanted to get the whole board to go, and I fought against it. I said anyone has their individual rights to do what they want. But I don’t think it should be done under the auspices of the Jewish federation,” Gross said.

King, who works on aviation systems for the military, has welcomed Somerville’s support and carefully cultivated the relationship over the past year and a half. She first made contact with Awareness Ministry in 2006 during Israel’s war in Lebanon, when she put an ad in the local newspaper soliciting donations for embattled Israelis. The ministry responded with a $2,000 check.

Since then, King and Goldsmith have attended the ministry’s Sukkot celebration and invited Somerville and his flock to Jewish community events, including last year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony. Somerville also embarked on trip to Israel last December, sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for Christian leaders in the Southeast. When a pro-Palestinian activist came to Huntsville, King said the ministry was an ally in defending the Jewish state.

“I felt that it was important that we needed to have some sort of alliance with them. We are a small minority and we need friends,” said King. “I’m not going to question their sincerity because they’ve proven it several times over by now.”

The donation that will be given at the Seder is a significant boost to the Federation’s fundraising efforts. The volunteer-run federation was reinvigorated in 2001 after a long period of stasis. The donation could make up as much as 20% of what the federation raises this year, most of which will go to Israel.

Somerville and King decided that the money would support a library and recreation center in Israel for Jewish evacuees of Gaza. A small percentage will go into a scholarship fund in Huntsville to train local teachers in Holocaust education.

Awareness Ministry is one of a number of evangelical organizations across the country that is trying to revive what they say is a biblical connection between ancient Jewish practice and Christian worship. A small but growing number are of them are observing Passover Seders and other traditionally Jewish festivals. According to Somerville, contemporary Christians have “strayed from the Hebraic contours” of their faith even though Judaism figured prominently in the lives and teachings of Jesus and his followers.

Somerville also believes that Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish community, as forbearers of Christianity and for the long history of Christian antisemitism. That sentiment has made Somerville and his church strong supporters of Israel, and it is the reason that he approached King last fall about donating the money to the federation. An annual donation to a local organization is a central part of the Christ Our Passover banquet, following a biblical injunction to “bless the city.”

“My motivations are simple,” Somerville said. “I’m simply taking this biblical celebration that is high profile in the New Testament and Old Testament to teach lessons that everyone needs to learn. The simple reason is to express blessings and gratitude to a people who have blessed us and the world.”

He insists that Christ Our Passover is not about converting Jews or blending together Judaism and Christianity.

Attendees will eat a catered meal and listen to a performance of the Israeli national anthem by the Covenant Christian Academy choir. Then they will watch on two jumbo screens as Somerville demonstrates parts of the Passover Seder filtered through a Christian worldview.

King said she is not pushing other Jewish leaders to attend. “I think that everyone has to go as their conscience dictates them, and if they don’t feel comfortable they should stay away,” she said.

But she added: “For me, the greater concern is to build this relationship with our neighbors. Somebody has to take the first step.”

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