Community & faith
Director of Jewish life discusses Passover, religion and building community
Gifted in sharing her faith and making connections with others, Gail Bretan joined Wake Forest as the University’s director of Jewish life in January. In this role, Bretan provides pastoral leadership to Jewish students, but also uses her expertise to build community among all Wake Forest groups, religious or non-religious. She discusses the upcoming Passover Seder and her passion for building this kind of community.
Q: How do you plan to develop and enrich the Jewish tradition at Wake Forest?
A: I want to provide support for and build a Jewish community. But, I also want to build a community where people from other faith traditions or no faith tradition can be part of our group. An inclusive community helps break down stereotypes, and I encourage people to explore faith through dialogue. That deep faith connects us through the divine spark in all of us.
Q: How can we encourage discussion and understanding among all faiths?
A: That is the million-dollar question. This is not just an issue of importance on college campuses but around the world. I firmly believe that we build understanding through the stories we tell each other. There are stereotypes about every single group. But people are people. And as we get to know each other as individuals, not just a stereotype or label, we can break down barriers and form relationships. Once we get past the labeling of Baptist, Catholic, secular, non-believer etc., we all have a connection.
Q: The community is invited to celebrate the Passover Seder. What is the meaning of this special meal?
A: Seder is the Hebrew word for order. There are 15 parts to the order of the Passover service and meal. Some people take up to eight hours to do their Seder, but we are going to try to do the first ten parts in just 30 minutes. This will include prayers, blessings and stories. Then we will enjoy the Festive Meal, followed by more prayers, stories and songs. We will also read from the Seder book, the ‘Haggadah’ (literally translated as “the telling”), in both Hebrew and English. There is a strong tradition of inviting family, friends and strangers to the Passover Seder. No one is a stranger for long!
The Passover story is about the enslavement of the Israelite people in Egypt and their liberation after 400 years. This story can be found in the book of Exodus in the Jewish Bible. The Passover Seder recounts this story of our Jewish ancestors to remind us about the importance of freedom. The Matzah (flat cracker), also referred to as our ‘Bread of Affliction’ symbolizes the urgency in which the Hebrew slaves left Egypt — there was no time for bread to rise. The Charoset, a mixture that looks like mortar, reminds us of the hard labor. The Moror (horseradish) reminds us of the bitterness of slavery. We diminish our wine (joy) to mourn the death of those who suffered or died for our freedom.
This annual tradition is a reminder that slavery continues to exist even today in our communities, with the rise of human trafficking, for exmaple, and with the enslavement of our own minds.
Q: Why is it important to be aware of all faiths and those who are still questioning – especially during religious holidays?
A. I believe God created all religions and within each are diverse viewpoints that can offer comfort and ways of forming the loving connections that most of us yearn for in the world. Different faith traditions help people to find what resonates within each soul and community. Learning about and understanding different religions helps us to broaden our perspectives and can actually deepen our own religious beliefs. There is also a certain spirituality within atheistic, agnostic and secular approaches. There are answers all around us to the deep questions of life. By understanding and respecting all religious (and secular) holidays and traditions that celebrate life and love, we honor the divine spirit and our fellow beings.