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Passover Becomes a Rallying Cry for Progressives

Activists are hoping that as Jews sit down at their Seder tables this year, they will turn their thoughts not just to ancient Egypt but to Sudan, Tibet and even the polar ice caps.

Jewish groups have sponsored a spate of new Haggadahs, additional readings, and supplemental rituals and symbols in an attempt to put social justice on the Passover table.

Though many Jews associate Passover with home and family, it has in recent times become the most political holiday in the Jewish calendar. Each year, Jewish activists and organizations publish new Haggadahs and offer new rituals to introduce contemporary political issues into the celebration of Passover. Interracial and interfaith Seders have become staples of Jewish outreach. Now, Jewish activists are seeing a new upsurge in attempts to connect Passover’s themes to hot-button social issues.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who helped usher in the contemporary era of Jewish activism with his “Freedom Seder,” says that the activist message of Passover has resonated with today’s political climate.

Passover “is about change,” he told the Forward. “It’s about social change, it’s about overthrowing a pharaoh. It’s about the earth itself rising up. All the reasons I did the Freedom Seder [almost] 40 years ago are exactly on point.”

Waskow wrote and organized his Freedom Seder in 1969, drawing on both traditional liturgy and texts by non-Jews such as Mahatma Gandhi to speak about the injustice of racial inequality. That spawned a host of followers; over the next few decades, the Freedom Seder was joined by feminist Seders, gay rights Seders, labor Seders, Soviet Jewry Seders and environmental Seders.

“Modern liberation Haggadahs have some long legs, historically,” said Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a professor of Jewish texts at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. “Jews did have a tendency to read themselves into text, and their political situation, throughout history.”

Many of the modern alterations have broken with Jewish tradition in focusing not on particularly Jewish issues but on more universal concerns. One such example this year is the project called An Unlit Candle, which urges Jews to place an unlit candle on their Seder table in protest of the recent Chinese government crackdown in Tibet. Jay Michaelson, one of the organizers (and a regular contributor to the Forward), said that he was encouraged by both the symbolism of candles and light in Jewish ceremony and by seeing the Olympic torch extinguished during the recent protests in Paris.

“In Jewish tradition, candles are symbols of light and freedom,” he said. “The idea is that the Tibetans’ light has not been lit. We’re celebrating what they don’t have.”

The Chinese government has become an ever-more frequent target for Jewish activism in recent weeks. American Jewish World Service, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center — the political arm of the Union for Reform Judaism — have all called on the United States to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics as a rebuke for Beijing’s human rights abuses. At the same time, Orthodox rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Haskell Lookstein have circulated a petition among fellow Jewish leaders, urging Jewish tourists to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

For Passover, the JCPA and AJWS have also teamed up with two non-Jewish organizations, the Save Darfur Coalition and Tents of Hope, to create a Darfur-themed Seder. The Darfur Seder includes a pause for participants to phone their elected officials, as well as a petition that can be sent to China’s special envoy to Darfur. The Seder concludes with the words “Next year without genocide.”

The Seder themes of oppression and redemption have also become rhetorical symbols in non-Jewish settings. On April 17, UNITE HERE, a union of textile workers and hospitality workers, organized a rally outside the offices of Goldman Sachs in downtown Manhattan to advocate higher wages for the company’s cafeteria workers. Though few of the cafeteria workers are Jewish, the rally will feature a mock Seder along with Passover songs.

Oppression is a common political theme, but some organizations have chosen to focus on Passover’s roots as a springtime holiday and to turn the focus to the earth itself. Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center, a social activism organization that has issued a Seder supplement focusing on environmental issues, particularly global warming.

“Maybe in our generation for the first time, when we look at the plagues, we can look at them and say, Oh, I recognize that — those are ecological disasters. That’s a climate disaster,” he told the Forward. “Suddenly, through eyes of where we live now, that exodus is also about the earth.”

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