For Tyler Cooney, the prospect of attending his first Passover seder has the 27-year-old more nervous than excited. What if he messes something up in front of his girlfriend’s family? What if he accidentally drinks out of Elijah’s cup?
Hoping to give him some background on the holiday — and a little solace — girlfriend Hannah Urkowitz brought him to a free “Passover for Beginners” program held by InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia on April 6.
Urkowitz, a 29-year-old graphic designer, said she wanted Cooney, who was raised Unitarian, to “be able to understand certain points of the holiday, and I wanted a bit of a refresher course on my Hebrew school education.”
For interfaith families and couples, any Jewish holiday can present unfamiliar challenges but Passover can be particularly daunting, said Wendy Armon, director of community relations for InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia.
Learning proper seder etiquette, how to make a Passover meal, how to handle the taste of food without leavening agents — all of those things can be overwhelming for those who didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday, she continued.
Aiming to address those fears, Armon invited four people to her home for a pilot intro to Passover session in 2012. To make the program more accessible to newcomers, this year the agency offered it at the Whole Foods in the Art Museum section of Center City. There, two other families joined Cooney and Urkowitz in a show kitchen on the upper level.
As Armon whipped up matzah balls, charoset and chocolate matzah, Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of the local InterfaithFamily, offered background on the holiday and answered questions.
David Falk, a 29-year-old lawyer who grew up in a Conservative home, came with his wife, Sarah, a 27-year-old accountant who is Catholic. They’ve been married for almost a year.
“She’s been doing Passover with my family every year for nine years, but there are some smaller points that might be common knowledge to me that I wouldn’t think to tell her,” Falk said. “I wanted to give her a better look at the stuff behind the scenes.”
Feige Grundman, a 35-year-old lawyer, echoed the same educational mission for bringing her husband, Dustin Leyland, who grew up Catholic.
“My attraction to men has been inversely proportionate to how much they look like a rabbi,” Grundman joked, holding their 18-month-old son, Berek, on her lap. “But we want to raise our son in a mix of tradition and history instead of just strict Jewish law.”
Cooney and Urkowitz already started Passover shopping and have looked over Passover recipes, trying to find out what Cooney may like.
“This is so great,” Urkowitz said as a sample of charoset was passed to them. “You can try the foods before you go.”
Cooney, who is interning in architecture, said he respects how Judaism is so substantive yet also open to interpretation. He said he felt better about the seder after learning more about the Passover story and meeting other interfaith couples going through the same thing.
“I can’t learn everything from your parents,” he told Urkowitz.
As the last of the matzah balls were distributed to the class, Frisch discussed how new perspectives from seder guests can bring more meaning to the holiday than just reading the words in the Haggadah. She encouraged the group to adjust their seder practices to fit their families.
“This is the holiday of freedom,” Frisch said. “So if we’re just reading on the past and not about the future and the evolution of Judaism, then we’re not celebrating the full potential of the holiday.”
Even though turnout was low, Armon said, she’s received requests to hold the Passover program from a couple of synagogues outside the city and will try to add more locations in coming years.
In addition to holiday intro classes, InterfaithFamily runs a wide array of programs in partnership with 50 area synagogues. Formerly known as InterfaithWays, the agency merged with the larger InterfaithFamily network based out of Boston in January 2013.
“Since the Pew study, there’s been a wave to accommodate interfaith couples within the Jewish religion. I feel like we’re on top of that wave,” Armon said. “We meet people where they are. If they want to convert, if they want to raise the children Jewish, if they want to do it all, we’re here for them.”