Joining a Holy Community

April 14th: Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Why, in the original Exodus story, did God need the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses? Though God explains (Exodus 12.13), “The blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the Land of Egypt,” this does not make sense. Shouldn’t God already know which houses were Israelite and which houses were Egyptian? And, even if people were in houses other than their own, shouldn’t the God of the Universe—Who presumably knows everything—know? Why would God need a sign on the doorposts?

Some commentators point to the phrase “the blood…shall be a sign for you,” and understand the symbol as an opportunity for self-identification: by painting the doorposts and lintels, each individual Hebrew could voluntarily include himself/herself in Am Yisrael, the community of the People of Israel. It was a way of stating publicly that his/her household wanted out of Egypt and its cruel system.

It can also be seen as an opportunity for non-Hebrews to join in the holy community. We do not have descriptions of what non-Jews did that evening, but the Torah tells us that many of them joined us in the Exodus. The Torah calls this group the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude, and they apparently came from all of the many ethnic groups in the Egyptian empire. They did not start out Jewish, but they voluntarily joined our people and were with us for the Exodus, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. They became a part of us. So, perhaps the painting of the doorposts was a way for them to declare themselves part of the Israelite community, and perhaps the Lord passed over their houses, as well.

In this and so many other ways, Passover reminds us that our Jewish endeavor is a communal undertaking. Individual religiosity and morality are important, but the joining of many individuals into a community is vital for the actualization of individual principles and goals. To wit, I would like to tell you about some important community events coming up in the next month.

*On April 21, our congregation will restart our Tot Shabbat Program for toddlers and their families. Reimagined by Becca Thorsen and Jennifer White, the program will take place during the Friday night service. Toddlers and their families will begin in the sanctuary for singing and candle-lighting. Then, they’ll go into the social hall for activities. The parents can stay in the sanctuary or go to the social hall. It’s a great idea, and we’re really excited to get this program going again. For more information, you can contact Becca at Tot Shabbat begins at 7:00 PM on Friday April 21st.

*On April 23, our congregation will offer a program for Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Our featured speaker will be Willa Silverman, Professor of French and Jewish Studies at Penn State. Willa’s research has led her to an understanding of the uniquely French aspects and experiences of the Holocaust, and she’ll be sharing her knowledge with us. The program begins at 4:00 PM on Sunday April 23rd at our synagogue.

*On April 26, we have been invited by the Community Diversity Group to a Cultural Conversation. This non-profit in State College sponsors social events where people can come together and get to know diverse community members on a personal level. In this event, the focus will be on Jews and Judaism and what it is like to be a Jew in State College and in the United States. Aaron Kaufman from Hillel and I will be making short presentations, but the main activity will be small table discussion groups where individual Jews can share our experiences and insights with non-Jews. The program will begin at 6:30 PM on Wednesday April 26th, and it will be held at the State College Borough Building (the Community Room).

*On April 27, our across the street neighbor, the Christian Science congregation, will present an interfaith program on the Transformative Power of Unselfishness. There will be three panelists, one from the Christian Science religion, one from State College Presbyterian Church, and me. The program will be a good opportunity to learn about our neighbors’ spiritual thinking and to share with them our own spiritual insights. The program will begin at 7:00 PM on Thursday April 27th at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, across the street from Brit Shalom.

 *On April 30, the Centre Chamber Orchestra will present a Holocaust-themed concert. Put together by their Israeli-born conductor, Yaniv Attar, the concert will show that, even in the darkest terror of the Holocaust, the human spirit was capable of bringing forth beautiful and hopeful music. One piece was written in the Terezinstaat Concentration Camp by inmate Hans Krasa—composed on the backs of prisoner lists discarded by the Nazis. Another piece was written by the child of a survivor. One was written by Erwin Schulhoff, whose great popularity in Europe (he was known as the “Gershwin of Europe”) did not save him from the oppressors. And, there will be a piece by Felix Mendelsohn, who reclaimed his family’s Jewish name and was thus banned by the Nazis. As Yaniv characterizes the repertoire, “This concert has some of the most uplifting and inspiring works I have ever heard.”  This kind of art needs our support. For tickets call the Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra at (814) 234-8313, or see their website:

*And, on May 5th, our congregation will be hosting A Sabbath Service for the Community and for Our Communal Aspirations. We’ll share our Shabbat worship for members of the community, including our traditions of justice and compassion and involving some non-Jewish friends in the service. This would be a good time to bring your non-Jewish friends who are always asking you questions about our faith. The service will begin at 7:00 PM on Friday May 5th. It will be held in our sanctuary.  (ALSO, if you’d like to contribute baked goods for the Oneg Shabbat afterwards, it would be much appreciated!)

All of these programs are efforts at community-building and the development of mutual-respect and cooperation. Please join us as we make these important statements and work on our communal aspirations. These events need both your support and your attendance.