Sarah Hi.

I attended the Asbell Center’s Seder for Passover on Thursday, April 13th. At 6 pm, we went over to the center. There were a few kids running around outside, they belonged to a professor who was attending. We took our seats around white tablecloth-covered tables in a U shape. Every few seats there was a large plate with an egg which look like it had some brown liquid sprinkled on it, sprigs of parsley, a bone, and a cup of diced apples and nuts with sugar. There were also plates of matzah covered with napkins, bowls of saltwater, and plates of celery, olives and pickles. Every seat had a book, which was used to follow the ceremony.
The ceremony itself was basic and informal. I ate the bitter herbs before I was supposed to, and without dipping them in the salt water, but I caught on fairly quickly. For some of the recitations we would drink a sip of wine, and at other times we would simply lift the glass and set it down again, without drinking. Then, the story of Passover was told. Normally, it would have been recited from the book, but a particularly energetic youth wanted to relate how Moses (or Mosha, as the storyteller referred to him) in storyteller form, complete with audience participation. Every once in a while he would stop telling the story and ask us to tell him what happened next. Most of the time, people were able to answer him, but a few times no one knew what he was getting at. Or he didn’t know the answer himself. And he said that Moses parted the Nile River to allow the Jews to escape their slavery in Egypt. Nile River, Red Sea, no big difference, right? No one corrected him. We drank the wine or grape juice, ate the bitter herbs dipped in salt water to represent the suffering and tears of the Jews in Egypt, and ate matzah, which was the bread that the Jews made as they were chased out of Egypt, and they did not have enough time to let the dough rise to make leavened bread. The ceremony was simple and informal, because many of the people present, from what I understood, were not regularly practicing Jews, or like me, were not Jewish at all. We talked about the 7 plagues, including the last one which gave Passover its name, where God sent the angel of death to Egypt to kill all of the Egyptian first born. The Jews were protected, passed over by the angel of death, by putting the mark of lambs blood over their doors.
The meal was great. There were traditional kosher Passover foods, like matzah soup, more matzah bread, chicken and beef, potato kugel, spinach kugel, gefilte fish, and traditional vegetable dishes (carrots with raisins mixed in). Nothing could be made with leavened dough, so the desserts were made with special ingredients. I think I heard one of the women who prepared the food say potato flour, but I’m not sure.
When we were finished eating, a piece of the matzah (possibly called afokoman?) which had been hidden by the person conducting the ceremony (a student) was hidden, and one of the little girls found it. She won a prize, and in turn hid the matzah again. Then the adults searched for it, and the person who found it won a $20 gift certificate to Starbucks. It was a nice activity in an informal setting.
I enjoyed myself. The tradition of Passover is very important to the Jewish people, as it is a way to remember their deliverance from slavery and their journey to the promised land. It is also an important institution within the Jewish faith to reaffirm family and community ties.

Upon my arrival at the church on Sunday, I was immediately greeted, and recognized from my previous visit. I was ushered over to the sign in table, where a month before I had put my name down to receive a newsletter. Turns out they had made a nametag for me, with a butterfly sticker and everything, which had been waiting for me since then. I sheepishly pinned it to my sweater, and was introduced to a few members of the congregation. Everyone was smiling and very friendly, and since I now had an official nametag, knew my name… The cynic in me tensed, preparing for an onslaught of awkwardness, but I managed to get through it. I suppose the formality and colder, more “proper” sense of community I was accustomed to, having grown up in the Catholic church, was partially to blame for my discomfort. We all wandered over to “the sanctuary” when we were told that the service was going to start shortly. It didn’t leave much time to talk to anyone in the congregation. The service began more oriented to the children in teh audience, until they went off for the equivalent of sunday school, which I can only imagine is like an intensive, liberally slanted civics class. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I think civics classes would benefit from liberal ideals, especially if they reflect the intellectual origins of the US. In any case, the preacher related a morally obtuse fable about her dog, Berry. It was a nice story, but unlike a parable that would be told to kids in Catholic sunday school, she left the moral of the story to be picked out by the kids themselves, whereas in Catholicism it would have been spelled out very clearly at the end of the story.
The sermon, however, was very clear and very inspiring. It was apt to the reading, which was a great selection from “Song of the Open Road,” by Walt Whitman. The sermon itself, entitled “Always the quest” was delivered by a guest preacher who had just begun a new congregation in Chester County. He talked about how he came to the ministry from Judaism, and the faith of Murrow, the preacher of the first church of Universalist Unitarians (UU). Murrow’s experience of losing everything, including his wife and child in England, and then trying to lose himself in the new world, led to him founding the first UU congregation. According to the preacher, Murrow’s ordeal could be related to religion itself, because religion begins as a quest. He criticized other religions for stifling personal development and denying that the sacred quest could still be part of the present day. For UUs, he claimed, the experience of the sacred has not ended with and is not limited by the scriptures. Followers are encouraged to do as Whitman writes, and make haste for the open road, embracing their full potential as human beings and members of the greater community. Overall, it was a “life is in the journey, not the destination” type of thing.
One thing that struck me about the service was that sometimes people applauded, and that often, especially during the dog story, the whole service seemed more like G-rated stand-up comedy; I am not accustomed to hearty laughter while worshipping an ultimate reality.
I think the sermon inspired more people to share when it came to the “Sharing of Personal Joys, Sorrows, and Life Transitions” part. I was surprised that two people talked about how they themselves were in financial trouble, and the other announcements ranged from anniversaries to concerns that women at a prison nearby were being oppressed and intimidated, or worse. There were many more people sharing than the previous time I went.
After the service, I went out to the “social hall” and took a look aroung at some of the displays. The idea of having a social event after the service is not foreign to me, nor is religious based social action; although the political agenda is different, the Catholic Church advocates social activism and volunteering.
In speaking to a few of the congregation, I asked them what brought them to join the UU faith. Responses varied greatly. Some had always been in the faith because their families had sort of passed it on to them. Others saw it as an alternative which fit their lifestyles and beliefs. As a “liberal” faith, it allows and embraces many lifestyles that more conventional religions prohibit or at least don’t talk about. Another person said she wanted her kids to learn the ideals and values that the UU church teaches, not just because they were liberal, but because it was also a civic education and encouraged community participation and social behavior. They all agreed that they felt more welcome there than in other religious services they had attended or churches they had belonged to, and I could see for myself that the community there was much closer and open than in any other church I have been exposed to.

On Sunday, February 19 I went with some classmates to the Unitarian Universalist service in Boiling Springs. The first thing that struck me when we arrived was that everyone had name-tags. This was quite different from the Catholic masses I was accustomed to, where the only thing I know about the people attending with me are that, presumably, they are Catholic. The front room was full of tables which presented different aspects of the Unitarian Universalist organization… do they refer to themselves as a church? Other tables detailed various social projects, based both in the US and in other countries. In talking to one of the members of the congregation before service began, my understanding of what the Unitarian Universalists was all about was basically confirmed. It’s basically a liberal American religion. The service was about Women’s Suffrage, and was put together both by a regular member and the minister. The readings were basically history lectures about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. God was not a part of this service, and from the impression I got from the rest of the members, seems to be rarely discussed. In general, it seemed like a genuinely American religion. It placed emphasis on traditional American values that we inherited from the inception of our nation such as democracy and the rights of man. The kids in the audience went off at one point in a rather corny ceremony of singing in the round to be taught about the Suffrage Movement. Apart from the corniness, it occurred to me that this was probably an important supplement to what they learn in elementary school about civic duty. It was interesting to me though, that in this way, people of liberal political belief can indoctrinate their children from a young age with their beliefs, much as I was indoctrinated in Catholicism. So in this sector of the population, Liberalism is taught in the framework of a religion. Not necessarily a bad idea, but just thinking about current politics, the huge division between conservatives and liberals, and the perception of the phrase “fundamentalist Christians” being interchangeable with “diehard conservatives” in some circles, particularly among more devout liberals, the whole thing seemed a little strange. I know there is the separation of church and state in this country, but the example of Unitarian Universalists seemed to fall outside of that box; however, instead of the usual criticism that religion has dominated politics, in this case politics have come to dominate religion. Of course, the disclaimer for this, and its pretty accurate, is that Unitarian Universalists do not shove beliefs down anyone’s throat. At least, beliefs about God. My favorite part of the service was probably the period appropriate rag-time piano music, and well researched suffrage songs which took the place of what would have been hymns in a Catholic mass (which I will be the first to admit, are often more like dirges.) All in all, I enjoyed my experience and definitely got something out of it. It was very different to what I am accustomed to, and I decided that I don’t really like it any more or any less than Catholicism. I still think there is value in having a more strict doctrine and talking about God more than occasionally.