April 4, 2007
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer
Lina Stas loves the story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt, particularly the part where he plunges his staff into the Red Sea and parts the waters as the Pharaoh's chariots approach, because it sends such a clear message about God's mission.
But Stas, who celebrated her first Passover Seder Tuesday night at Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, is not Jewish, or even Christian.
She is Muslim and she came to the United States two months ago from Syria - a nation that President Bush described Tuesday as a "state sponsor of terror" - on a mission, of sorts, of her own.
Stas, who along with six other Syrian scholars is studying Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim relations for a year at Hartford Seminary, is painfully aware of how her nation is perceived by the U.S. government and some of its people.
"If we knew each other better, we would communicate better," Stas said. "That is part of why we are here. We are all human beings and we have to do something to bridge the gap between us."
So, on the same day that Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived in Damascus in an attempt to open a dialogue with the Syrian government, Stas and three of her friends broke matzo and tasted the bitter herb along with a roomful of Jews observing the holiday at Temple Beth Hillel.
There, they discovered more than one similarity between their religion, Islam, and Judaism.
They already knew many of the obvious ones - Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet, but they also believe that many of the same people who figure so prominently in the Jewish and Christian faiths - Adam, Moses, and Jesus, among others - are prophets, as well.
Attending a Passover Seder is different from studying about Judaism in books, however, which is something that the rabbi of Temple Beth Hillel, Jeffrey Glickman, knew before the Muslim visitors arrived.
"My goal is to help Jews be better Jews for the Passover Seder and Christians to be better Christians and Muslims to be better Muslims," Glickman said, adding that Christianity and Islam "didn't just pop out into this world, but grew out of a religion which has incredible significance."
"For me to point out the Jewish roots of many of the Jewish rituals we have helps them to understand better the rituals they have," Glickman said. "Sometimes they forget how Jews interpret things. By understanding these interpretations, eternal truths dawn on them."
Take the matzo, for example. As Glickman explained it, the matzo represents the unleavened bread the Jews took with them as they fled Egypt; there wasn't time for yeast to work.
For that reason, the matzo is symbolic of affliction, and why many Jews follow the Torah prohibition against eating or owning any leavened products - such as bread, cake, cookies, and beer - for the duration of the seven-day holiday.
Stas was struck by this, for a number of reasons.
"We know about affliction," she said, after she'd taken a short break from the Seder to pray in a classroom at the synagogue. Muslims fast during the month-long observance of Ramadan, the time Muslims believe Allah, or God, sent the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad in Mecca and gave him the teachings of the Quran. They also make a pilgrimage to Mecca, which for many of them is enormously expensive and exhausting.
But the more meaningful part of the story for Stas and the other Muslim women was the concept of freedom in the Passover observance.
When the Jews got to the Red Sea and discovered that Pharaoh's army was following them, "it looked like we were pinned and it looked like there was no way out," Glickman explained.
But God intervened and parted the waters, sending the Jewish people to safety and freedom, which, for the Muslim women, is synonymous with free will.
"Allah gave us free will," said Omama Diab, a teacher in Syria. "He wants to test us. He wants us to show our mercy."
"People who choose to be good are closer to God than the angels," Stas added.
Diab, Stas and the other five women are here to learn, but also educate.
A dentist in Damascus, Stas made it clear to the people gathered for the Passover, that women in Syria are "free" to be educated, work, and - and here she smiled - even drive a car.
They have only been here two months, so they are still adjusting to American culture and some things have been surprising, such as the fact that a family can consist of two adults and a dog, but no children; and the frequency with which Americans seem to smile.
But they have had no negative experiences so far.
"When we meet people and say we are from Syria, people say, `You are so brave to come here,'" Diab said. "But we don't look at it that way. A lot of people in the west think that Syria is just an Islamic state. They don't know we live in peace. We have to send this message that there is no problem between Muslims and Christians."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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