Local seders explore social justice themes, identity

Saint Louis University and the Jewish Community Relations Council held a social action seder on Monday focused on hunger awareness.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For those exploring seder options this Passover, St. Louis presents no shortage of opportunities to mark the holiday with a variety of specially themed gatherings to suit any taste.

St. Louis University and the Jewish Community Relations Council held a seder at SLU on Monday evening focusing on hunger issues in the community. It was the first year for the event, which is part of a national White House Interfaith Service Challenge.

The seder discussed ways to actively combat hunger in the area, said Bryan Sokol, professor of psychology at SLU and director of the university’s Center for Service and Community Engagement. 

“It’s kind of a movement between raising people’s awareness on this issue and sharing some of the different faith traditions, obviously with a focus on Jewish tradition and trying to take some kind of action.”

SLU isn’t the only place to find a hunger-themed seder nor are adults the only ones who can participate. Another JCRC-sponsored event is being set up to appeal to a younger set. The idea was based off a national program from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“I said ‘What if we just do a small one with kids and teach them about local children’s hunger issues, just plant the seed and try to give them some information without frightening them,’” said Hilary Cedargreen, an organizer of another hunger seder set for April 20. “It can help them learn and see if maybe it sparks something in a few of them to do a project.”

Now in only its second year, the event looks to engage kids in understanding hunger both in terms of its prevalence and what they can do to help. The seder is still in the planning stages but Cedargreen said the hope is that it can be linked with activities at Operation Food Search as well as a trip to the Missouri History Museum to look at an exhibit on the issue. The event will also feature a partnership with St. Gabriel, a local Catholic school.

“It’s really important to note that Passover is about the Exodus and about fleeing from hunger and oppression,” she said, “so it just brought up a lot of ties to Passover like ‘What is considered oppression and is being hungry considered being oppressed? Is having food to survive a right you are born with?’”

Hunger isn’t the only tie-in for potential social action this Passover season however. JCRC is sponsoring a special labor seder under the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations. The event, set for April 12, takes place every two years and features a partnership with the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO, headed by Bob Soutier and the Labor Tribune helmed by Ed Finkelstein.

“The theme of Passover is a very good fit with the theme of labor,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC. “We were slaves in Egypt. There is also a joint history between the Jewish community and the labor movement.”

Rabbi Howard Kaplansky will officiate at the seder, which will also feature a labor Haggadah and a tour of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. 

“We have a period before the actual seder service in which both communities focus on issues of primary concern to our community,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “For instance, two years ago the Jewish community spoke to the issue of Iran and the menace of a nuclear Iran. Sadly, we are going to have to do that again this year.”

Central Reform Congregation is going all out for special observances as well. A men’s seder will be offered on April 10 for interested participants. Organizer Michael DiPlacido said the event will be led by Rabbi Randy Fleisher.

“He is definitely the sparkplug,” said DiPlacido. “He provides the spiritual leadership and we really appreciate having him there.”

The seder uses a Haggadah designed to highlight issues of importance to males. Stories about traditional plagues are replaced with discussion of “plagues” that impact men in modern society from prostate cancer to social pressures such the tendency of males to be strongly identified by society with their career. Exercises will ask participants to think deeply about what wisdom they might impart if they were wise old men.

“It’s interesting in that respect,” said DiPlacido. “It’s very different. It’s not traditional at all except for the general outline of the seder.”

DiPlacido said the event is a good way of viewing the holiday from a male perspective.

“It’s amazing the intense positive response we get from the participants after each one, even from someone who has never been to one before,” he said. “It’s the brotherhood we experience, the connection to each other is the biggest reward.”

Women also have their own seder at CRC. Maggie Duwe, an organizer of the event, said that in some ways it’s not all that different from a traditional seder.

“The content is mostly the same,” she said of the April 11 event. “It’s just that it’s genderized feminine instead of genderized masculine.”

Duwe said the seder really helps to make women feel included in the holiday though she said she likes going to CRC’s other celebrations too.

“It’s nice to have that experience and all of us enjoy all of the other seders as well,” she said.

Another CRC seder will look at racial diversity. Formerly known as the “Dismantling Racism” seder, the event has its roots in a 2005 working group that fostered a yearlong dialogue on the issue of race in the Jewish community.

“One of the things that grew out of that was to create a seder where we looked at the experience of African-Americans with slavery here on our shores and coming out of slavery,” said Philip Deitch, a participant in the seder.

Including individuals from the African Hebrew Israelite community as well as members of the Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church and a JCRC racial dialogue group, the April 8 seder will feature entertainment from noted Jewish rocker Rick Recht as well as various readings pertaining to the African-American slave experience.

“We have a particularly powerful pseudo-church preaching that would have been done by a person of color to a group on a plantation,” said Deitch, “where the story of Abraham was carefully told so as not to cross the legal line of inciting a slave rebellion but it reinforced God’s desire for justice while protecting those who were preaching and hearing the preaching.”

Deitch is also a part of another CRC seder that focuses on a different kind of diversity. The LGBT seder has been a fixture at the temple for about two decades, he said.

“It’s again the experience of coming out of a form of slavery. For our members what was so powerful, I think, was coming out of the internalized homophobia that many of us felt and all of us grew up with,” he said. “I think that’s part of the story of Passover, getting out of your own skin and realizing that the situations you are put in create the slavery and that you are not a slave.”

Deitch notes that the event, which has its own special Haggadah, can be quite moving.

“A lot of the storytelling is personal family experiences that came out during our LGBT seders. Particularly people’s first seder after they came out was typically a very powerful experience,” he said. “It really made Passover resonate with unusual strength and meaning.”

That event is set for April 14.

For information on any CRC events, contact the temple at 314-361-3919. For information from JCRC, call 314-442-3871.