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Conservative Jews can now add rice and beans to Passover seder

Howie Hassan, grocery manager at the Everfresh

Howie Hassan, grocery manager at the Everfresh kosher supermarket in Great Neck, holds gluten free sesame pretzel thins and sweet corn, both items that are "Kosher for Passover, Kitniyot by Rabbanut," Tuesday, April 19, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Rabbi Howard Stecker of Temple Israel of Great Neck plans to offer something new at his Passover seder Friday night: a dish of rice and beans, placed right next to the familiar brisket.

Stecker alerted his guests beforehand, however, with a “rice and beans memorandum” — in case anyone objected.

“We haven’t encountered any resistance,” he said.

For Conservative Jews of Ashkenazi descent, the dish — no big deal at any other time of year — represents the end of a Passover tradition lasting over 800 years.

This is the first seder since the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards advised that a class of foods called kitniyot could be eaten over the eight days of Passover, including rice, beans, millet, sesame seeds, corn, string beans and sprouts.

The seder is the ritual when family and friends retell the story of the survival and flight from ancient Egypt of enslaved Israelites, led by Moses, who fled so quickly they brought only unleavened bread. Jews observing Passover eschew leavened bread for matzah, a flatbread.

Medieval rabbis, in explaining their ban on kitniyot, wrote that the five grains forbidden in leavened form — known as chametz — over Passover might possibly be mistakenly commingled or confused with them.

According to the Conservative ruling, which is not binding on individual congregations, barring kitniyot no longer made sense since modern packaging made confusion and commingling unlikely. Moreover, rice, beans and other legumes are affordable compared to many Pesach, or Passover, products, and widen healthy options for vegetarians and those with health concerns. The rulings noted that ancient Jewish law didn’t bar kitniyot, although later rulings and customs did.

“It was always understood that it wasn’t necessarily the most brilliant of customs, but it was a custom. It was what we did,” said Rabbi Alan B. Lucas of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights. “Tradition is hard to change when you’ve been doing it one way all your life, and the beauty of (the new change) is no one is requiring them to embrace it.”

Stecker gave a sermon last month applauding the change, especially because it brings people of different traditions together. Sephardic Jews, who come from regions stretching from Spain to North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Persia and Iraq, have different customs and many serve rice and other kitniyot at Passover.

“I don’t think rice and beans should keep families apart,” he said, noting that even those who don’t eat kitniyot can now feel comfortable having a seder with those who do.

The Conservative rulings do not apply to those in Orthodox Jewish movements, or to Reform congregations.

Sharon Gershon of East Meadow is a traditionalist who thinks Ashkenazi families — who are of Germanic and Eastern European descent, as she is — should stick with their own traditions. But when her four children argued that they should follow the customs of their father Avner, born in Israel of Iraqi descent, she gave in and for years has served rice at her huge seders with extended family.

“My kids love it,” she said. “We stay up to 3 in the morning, we drink wine and we kibitz; it’s just a nice tradition we have.”

Dr. William Wertheim of Huntington Bay said his family began using rice and hummus in 2014 two years after a daughter, now in college, returned from a trip to Israel reporting that most people there, with its large Sephardic population, already ate kitniyot at Passover and why couldn’t they? Conservatives there approved kitniyot in 1989.

“It’s funny: Intellectually, it doesn’t make any sense,” he said of his initial reluctance. “I know this is what many people do, and it’s not what you have to do, but part of me asked, ‘Gosh, what would my grandmother say?’ ”

Kosher markets, such as Everfresh in Great Neck, are already seeing the effects of the change.

“We have a section meant for kitniyot and for the most part only Sephardic people came to shop in that section,” said Abie Bilgoray, who runs the market’s meat department. “This year there is much more flow with people in the Ashkenazi community. Many people have mentioned it to me, saying, ‘We’re going to try rice this year.’ And others say, ‘We’re not going to try it — it would feel wrong.’ ”

Rabbi Jonathan Waxman of Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown said at this Friday’s seder he’ll be easing his way into the new era of kitniyot.

“I have told my Persian sister-in-law she can bring along her rice and the crispy stuff at the bottom,” he said. “I know she and her family will eat it; I think my brother David will eat it. I just haven’t figured out whether I’m ready to eat it this year.”

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