This is Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s 35th year representing northwest Baltimore in the House of Delegates, and it’s the third time in those 35 years that the first night of Passover, when Jewish families traditionally gather for the ritual Seder, has fallen on Sine Die, the last night of the Maryland General Assembly session. The last time was in 1990.
“So as we say, why is this Sine Die different from all other Sine Dies?” Rosenberg said.
The state Constitution says the legislative session must start on the second Wednesday in January and end 90 days later, at midnight. The last day is easily the busiest of the session, as members make last-ditch efforts to pass new laws. Being absent isn’t an option.
So this year, the House and Senate leaders have agreed to coordinate their dinner breaks to allow for a one-hour Seder Monday night.
“I've kind of joked, we have four bites of matzah, four sips of wine, and then get back to work,” said Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan, who is working with the Baltimore Jewish Council to organize the event.
The Baltimore Jewish Council estimates there are about two dozen legislators who are Jewish or have Jewish families.
But Kagan said she isn’t sure how many would normally observe the holiday.
“It's really a nice holiday. It celebrates freedom and liberation, and so it's an opportunity to really share that story with people of any faith or of no faith,” she said. “Especially in the stressful final days, it just might be nice to sit down and break bread or break matzah together."
As of Thursday morning, 40 people had RSVPed for the event, about two-thirds of them legislators, according to Sarah Mersky, director of government relations for the Baltimore Jewish Council. The rest are staff, lobbyists and family members.
“Different people of different backgrounds, different faiths,” Mersky described. “We have Christians, Muslims and Jews all coming together.”
In other words, “we’ll have a minyan,” Rosenberg joked, using the Hebrew word for the 10 Jews traditionally needed to have a prayer service. “And I'm sure given the nature of who will be there, there will be a very stiff competition as to who will read the part of the wise child."
A Seder is typically an all-night affair. It begins with some prayers and the retelling of the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Participants talk about the symbolism of the food. They sing. And after two glasses of wine, they eat. Then they drink two more glasses of wine and sing some more.
Squeezing all of that into an hour is tricky. But Mersky has a plan.
"We're hoping that the first part of the Seder, which is before the meal, is about 20-25 minutes,” she said. “Then there will be the meal, which will be quick — it's buffet style, in and out — and then the last part of the Seder, which is the last two glasses of wine, probably will be 5-10 minutes, in and out."
Adam Raskin, the rabbi at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, said that, in a way, legislators are honoring the spirit of Passover by fulfilling their democratic duties.
“I suppose you could say that advancing democratic government and rule by the people is a response to Passover, which was an oppressive regime that was rule by one all-powerful figure, and his rule was hoisted upon the rest of the population,” he said. “This is, I suppose, a response to that kind of system, and by continuing to support the democratic process and rule by the people, that is an inversion of Pharaoh’s Egypt."
Rosenberg said the importance of his work as a legislator helps make up for the parts of the celebration he will miss this year.
“I don't mean to be rabbinical, but the work we do is a mitzvah down here, and — if we do it right,” he said. “We’re mixing both the political and the religious in an appropriate way."
A mitzvah, he explained, is “a good deed.”