Long Islanders prepare for Passover

Rina Shkolnik, Executive Director of the Jewish Community

Rina Shkolnik, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center of the Five Towns, in the center's food pantry. (April 2, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

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With the Jewish holy days of Passover set to begin, the traditional seder dinner provides more than a meal.

The kosher foods served play an integral part in retelling the biblical story of the Exodus.

Bitter herbs and salt water symbolize the hardships of slavery. Charoset -- a mixture of nuts, apples and wine -- represents the mortar that the slaves were forced to use to make bricks for the pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Matzo, or unleavened bread, is used to commemorate the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt, without time to let the bread rise.

But as Long Islanders continue to deal with the fallout of a recession, some faithful could not afford to buy these special foods.

In stepped Rina Shkolnik. She put out a call weeks ago for help and was overjoyed when one Long Islander donated 200 kosher chickens, she said.

"There are amazing people in our community that care and give to those people in need," said Shkolnik, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Five Towns in Cedarhurst and its kosher food pantry -- the largest on Long Island.

Passover, a remembrance of the ancient Hebrews' historic Exodus and escape from slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago, begins Friday night at sunset. It ends either next Friday or Saturday, depending on the practices of the various branches of Judaism.

A central part of this major Jewish holiday is the festive seder dinner, which generally takes place the first and second nights of Passover.

During the seders, children ask four questions about the Passover ritual and why this night differs from others. Their parents answer by retelling the Exodus story, reading from a book called the Haggadah.

Shkolnik said that some Jewish people, especially the elderly on fixed incomes, were finding it hard this year to buy the special kosher foods needed for the seders, including shank bone and bitter herbs.

The foods all play an integral part of telling the biblical story of the Exodus, said Rabbi Steven Moss of the B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale.

At the Bay Shore Jewish Center, Rabbi Leslie Schotz said her synagogue also received an influx of monetary donations this year to help people who are struggling financially buy the special seder foods. "That's been very heartening," she said.

Some of Passover's central themes are freedom, defiance, hope and renewal, Schotz said.

Those lessons are relevant today, Moss said. "We cherish the freedom that was secured by the Hebrews," Moss said. "I guess you could term the Exodus a 'Jewish spring,' in that we stood up against a tyrant and secured our freedom with God's help."

He added, "Passover is not only a rehearsal of an event that occurred 3,000 years ago . . . but a rehearsal for the future," suggesting how the world should deal with injustice.

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