D.C. resident Susan Barocas has been cooking for as long as she can remember. She still has her first cookbook, a 1957 "Betty Crocker's Cook Book for Boys and Girls." She now directs the Jewish Food Experience, a new project sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. The project features a website, jewishfoodexperience.com, and tastings and events to bring the Jewish community together.

How is food important to the Jewish experience?

Historically, with the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem, the focus for Jews who were dispersed all over the world became the home and, in a sense, some people would say, that the table became the altar. Every Jewish holiday has special foods associated with it. In the five books of Moses, the Torah, there are numerous references to food, from the way that you grow your grain and share with the poor to the laws of keeping kosher, even passing references to people like Noah after the flood, who planted a vineyard. Jewish food has always taken on the ingredients and the flavors of the lands where Jews have lived and have been adapted for the laws of keeping kosher.

Passover is coming up. How are you celebrating?

Passover is a wonderful time to stop and clean, both your house physically and for me some mental, soul kind of emotional house cleaning that the holiday evokes. For me, Passover is about the journeys we all make as individuals. This is a holiday that celebrates a journey to freedom. I always host a large Passover Seder in my home. If it's less than 20, I think it's small. I ask people to bring objects that represent one of the journeys they've made in the past year. It can be a literal journey -- a plane ticket. Or it can be more spiritual and emotional, jewelry from a mother who passed away, a book that someone published that year. And so we go around the table, introduce ourselves, put our objects on the Seder plate and talk about our journeys.

How important for you is it to keep kosher?

I don't keep kosher. I keep kosher for Passover. I clean my house; there's no bread, no leavening. I didn't grow up keeping kosher, and a lot of Jews actually don't keep kosher. However, I am a vegetarian, and I don't eat shellfish, so for me it's kind of irrelevant. I will say that the idea of keeping kosher -- what I've grown to really appreciate about it is it's a way of being mindful about what you eat, and a way of being mindful of the humanity necessary for us to eat meat, to eat other living creatures, and gratitude.

What do you hope people will get out of the Jewish Food Experience?

It's a way to bring Jews together from many different backgrounds and ages and knowledge of Judaism, to build a community, to build Jewish identity. Food is really a unifier. Who doesn't love to eat? Jewish food in particular is one of those cuisines that is so diverse and has so much history attached to it. \

At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?

I think one of my defining beliefs is that we're all in this together, that each of us is more when we are part of something, when we are part of family and when we're part of community, that our lives are very much enhanced in the coming together with other people and in the sharing of whatever our passions are and whatever we have to offer each other.

- Liz Essley