Sharing the seder


If not for her participation in Cultural Leadership, Ashaki Hall, 17, says she would not be bold enough to respectfully object when she hears inappropriate remarks that reflect racial or cultural bias. “We’re learning how African-Americans and Jewish people have worked together to fight for what’s right. We are allies,” says Hall, a junior at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School.

“In the past, I wouldn’t have the chutzpah to speak up when I hear something that is wrong,” she adds. “Now I do.”

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Founded here in 2004, Cultural Leadership teaches high school students to dispel stereotypes and promote understanding, cooperation, dialogue and mutual respect. The year-long program recently offered an opportunity for 31 participants and their families to better understand each other’s faith traditions. Some African-American teenagers attended Passover seders and some Jewish teenagers attended Easter church services.

Ashaki attended a seder with her mother, Donna Hall, at the home of Nancy and Aaron Novack and their daughter Hannah, of Clayton. “This was my first seder, and it probably was one of the coolest dinners I’ve ever been to,” says Ashaki. “The Novacks were really welcoming. They explained the significance of the different dishes and the background of the readings in Hebrew.”

Nina Oberman, a junior at Clayton High School, attended Easter service with Hall, a Baptist, at The Village Church of St. Louis. “It was really beautiful, a very uplifting service,” Nina says. “The message of Passover and Easter are really similar. They are both about freedom.”

Ashaki adds, “We learned that this exchange is really all about people believing in the same God.”

Karen Kalish, executive director and founder of the program, says the holiday exchange has been part of Cultural Leadership from the beginning. “Overwhelming joy is always the response to the exchange. The black students are always surprised to learn that Jews were once slaves in Egypt, and that makes an interesting connection. And of course the Jewish students are always warmly welcomed at the churches. Everybody always ends up enjoying sharing the holidays.”

Kalish founded a similar program, Operation Understanding DC, 15 years ago in Washington, D.C. More than 100 students have taken part in the local Cultural Leadership program, which is open to qualified high school sophomores and juniors.

“The programs are designed to rekindle the historical alliance between Jews and African-Americans, the two most discriminated-against groups in America,” says Kalish. “Historically, these same two groups have worked side by side to fight for social justice, and they have brought about more change than any other two groups.”

Kalish’s goal is that through cultural activities, dialogue sessions, travel, study, public speaking and leadership training, the students will learn to be change agents and community activists in areas of social justice.

Bobby Ingram, a sophomore at Parkway Central High School, credits the program with expanding his world view. “Before I got involved with Cultural Leadership, I had never been to a church,” he says. “In the last three months, I have been to two.”

On Easter, Bobby and his family joined Bianca Greene — another participant in Cultural Leadership — and her family for the service at Calvary Church at St. Louis Mills Mall. “It was great, much more lively than Jewish services, with more involvement,” reports Bobby. “If you want to compare it to school classes, I’d say Jewish services feel like history class and the service at Calvary was more like art class.”

The previous week, Bianca and her parents, Cherilyn and Raymond Washington, took part in a seder hosted by Ingram’s parents, Debra Moss and Joseph Ingram in unincorporated west St. Louis County. “They asked a lot of questions, and having Bianca and her family there made my family and me think more carefully about our traditions,” says Bobby Ingram.

“The Passover-Easter exchange has definitely opened my eyes. I realize now there are a lot of parallels between Christianity and Judaism,” he adds. “Also, the experience really gives you a different perspective on another person’s life. I’ve always had African-American friends, but before this, I didn’t see the world through their eyes.”

Jake Warshaw, a sophomore at Crossroads College Preparatory School, along with his family attended Easter services at First Baptist Church of Chesterfield with Loren Cahill and her family. “It was really lively, with lots of songs and energy, and that was great,” says Jake.

The previous week, Eric Washington, Jr. of University City attended a seder with his mother, Rosalyn Washington, at the home of Susan and Henry Warshaw in Richmond Heights. “I think it went very well,” says Jake Warshaw. “Some of the words in the readings can be confusing, but I think Eric found it all interesting, and it was a good experience.”

Eric, a sophomore at Lutheran High School South, concurs. “It was so much fun — a really different experience.” He especially enjoyed learning the history of the Israelites and finding the hidden matzah. This was Eric’s second Passover celebration. He had attended a seder at school when he was in sixth grade, but this gathering was in a family setting.

Eric’s mother also enjoyed the evening. “The entire meal was delicious, and now I understand the symbolism of each dish,” says Rosalyn Washington, a sixth grade teacher at Bermuda Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. “I believe the more knowledge we have of one another’s beliefs, the more we understand each other.”