‘Hope’ becomes theme during Houston’s largest-ever Seder
Michael Vowell never thought he’d teach basic Hebrew on one of Judaism’s highest holidays.
But this year was about inclusion. And so, despite the yarmulkes dotting the crowd before him, with humor and patience the rabbi gave remedial lessons on his faith’s language to a Seder dinner that may have set records.
Seder marks the beginning of Passover, the weeklong celebration of the Israelites’ freedom from the Egyptians during Biblical times. This year, though, Vowell and other leaders at Houston’s Congregation Beth Messiah Synagogue decided to use the holiday to bring people of different faiths and backgrounds together.
“People need hope right now,” he said. “They don’t need to be berated. They don’t need to have two long fingers pointed in their face.”
The message worked. Nearly 1,400 people arrived at the Hilton Americas Houston in downtown Friday, a number that Vowell and others believe may make their Seder dinner among — if not the — largest ever in Houston.
The crowd, which included families from as far away as Argentina and Ukraine, would have once been unthinkable for Vowell and his congregation. Founded in a peanut farmer’s living room 36 years ago, Beth Messiah has grown from a handful of parishioners to a congregation of more than 400.
The brand of Judaism practiced at the synagogue — Messianic Judaism — is itself a relatively new phenomena. Its practitioners identify as Jews, but believe that Jesus is the messiah — something that has drawn the ire of many mainstream Jews since it first started becoming more popular in the 1970s.
“We’re not universally loved — that’s true,” Vowell said. “For a long time we were kind of the ugly stepchild, so for us to be here at a passover this large would have been unthinkable.”
Nearby, Grant Rothberg sat with 25 or so other members of Sagemont Church. He said had come because of the shared history between Christianity and Judaism.
“It’s a reminder,” he said. “There’s a thread of history that we see all the way from the freedom from slavery during Exodus until the freedom of our sins through Jesus.”
Not all have traditionally appreciated that common history, though. Many of the Messianic Jews in attendance Friday said they’ve faced backlash for their faith from friends and family, some of whom see it as a betrayal of Judaism.
Growing up in Argentina, Agustin Wainberg said Passover was always seen as an opportunity to reach out to those of other faiths.
Still, his conversion to Messianic Judaism was not without conflict. His brothers initially disapproved of his faith, which some see as inherently conflicting, but he said they’ve since become more accepting.
And so to be surrounded Friday by a diverse group of accepting people was particularly important, he said.
“It’s just really fulfilling,” he said.