Social-action Freedom Seder brings faiths together

William Motchan
Above, Rabbi Howard Kaplansky helps lead the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Freedom Seder on April 9. Photo: Bill Motchan

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A Passover seder designed to spotlight social action and bring together various faith groups attracted about 150 attendees to the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex on April 9. 

“We are being called to the act of empathy,” Rabbi Howard Kaplansky of United Hebrew Congregation told a solemn crowd. “Not only to hear the story of the Exodus, but to feel as if we, too, were being set free.”

Known as a Freedom Seder, the event was based on a similar gathering a half-century ago in which about 800 Jewish and Christian participants gathered in a church basement to hold a special seder recognizing the ongoing struggle for civil rights a year after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King. This year’s event, an updated version that included a Muslim and Bahai presence, was named in honor of Aurelia Konrad, whose charitable foundation was among the sponsors, and was held under the auspices of the Newmark Institute for Human Relations. 

During the event, candles were lit and call-and-response chants were held, as blessings and ritual washings were completed at the direction of an interfaith panel reading from a Haggadah.  This special Passover booklet included passages on various social problems followed by moments of silence for victims of each.

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Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which was a sponsor of the event, led attendees in the breaking of the middle matzah to be shared with the hungry and oppressed. She changed with the group:

“This year, we share in a world of greed and war, but we pledge to work during this coming year so that we can share and celebrate in a world at peace.” 

Other panelists focused on particular issues of concern. 

“Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants and refugees,” said James Fowlkes-Comninellis, coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, as he read a passage from a pastoral letter against racism released by a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

“Finally, too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.” 

The Rev. Rodrick Burton, pastor of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, read from a section on climate change in a resource guide on the topic for religious communities. 

“As the world’s religions tell us, when we degrade the natural environment and its web of life, we are degrading all humans,” he said. “Only when we have healthy air, healthy water and healthy soil will we have a healthy planet and healthy human beings.” 

A passage on gun violence from Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez was read by Shima Rostami, a Muslim and president and executive director of Gateway Human Trafficking. 

“No one understood the extent of what happened. No one could believe that there were bodies in that building waiting to be identified for over a day. No one knew that the people who were missing had stopped breathing long before any of us had even known that a code red had been called.” 

The Rev. Dr. Dieter Heinzl, associate pastor at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church (USA), took a segment on religious extremism. 

“We all lose by responding to ruthless terror with mindless policy — policies that turn people against each other, alienate already marginalized groups and play into the hands of the enemy,” he quoted from the 2016 remarks of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.“We need cool heads and common sense. We must never be ruled by fear — or provoked by those who strive to exploit it.” 

The traditional 10 plagues were recited before an additional recitation of 10 “modern” plagues including war, terrorism, greed, poverty, pollution and indifference to suffering. 

In the same vein, Cantor Sharon Nathanson of Congregation B’nai Amoona sang the familiar “Dayenu” before encouraging participants to think of a “contemporary Dayenu” in which they could be thankful for a future that would see an end to exploitation, violence, hatred and other ills. 

“When people of all ages, sexes, races, religions, cultures and nations respect and appreciate one another … dayenu,” she said. “When all children grow up in freedom, without hunger or fear and with the love and support they need to realize their full potential … dayenu.” 

Participants said they were happy with the event’s turnout and content. 

“This is my first seder and I find it extremely interesting and enlightening,” said Paula Collins, an African-American attendee from Central Baptist Church who found the use of the food and its symbolism to be deeply meaningful. “We share a lot of the same beliefs.” 

B’nai Amoona congregant Judy Frankel said she enjoyed the prayers and thought it was interesting how people of all religions struggled against similar difficulties. 

Her husband, Lenny, said, “It is a wonderful event that brought people together from different faiths, many of whom have never been to a seder before. You get to know people you might never run into in the community.” 

Theresa Orozco, a congregant at St. Francis Xavier College Church, said the gathering gave her hope.

“The words that we are speaking about — racism, gun violence, our climate and religious extremism — these are words that need to disappear so that we can practice love and peace and caring for creation,” she said. 

Bahar Bastani, a Muslim attendee, said he was struck by the beauty of the Jewish prayers and the one-on-one contact with others.

“We can always sit and discuss issues about ideology and why we should all combine,” said Bastani, a native of Iran who worships at Dar al-Zahra Mosque. “But to be able to sit at a table and break bread together, that brings hearts together so we see the human part in each other more than just sitting in a lecture where someone tells us we should all unite and work together.” 

Michael Newmark of the institute that bears his name expressed delight with the inaugural seder. 

“The diversity in the crowd was everything we had hoped for,  and the spirit in the room was great,” he said. “It shows what a great community we have in the metropolitan area.” 

Newmark chair Phyllis Markus said she hopes this could become an annual event. The institute has also sponsored similar gatherings including hunger- and labor-themed seders.