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Rabbinical Student Urges Black-Jewish Unity At Chicago Seder

At a Passover Seder held on a street corner on the South Side of Chicago, a prominent black rabbinical student urged African-Americans and Jews in Chicago to come together to prevent gun violence.

Tamar Manasseh called the April 11 event the “Seder of the Streets” and held it on a South Side street corner, where dozens of people gathered for the ritual meal at foldout tables under tents.

“Two peoples, African Americans and Jews whose collective histories are marked by journey and struggle have at times been compared, other times intertwined, and others been in opposition,” said Manasseh, the leader of a local group called Mothers Against Senseless Killing, or MASK, a community watchdog organization founded in 2015 to address Chicago’s gun violence.

Tamar Manasseh, a rabbinical student from Chicago, is the founder of a watchdog group that fights gun violence. Image by Facebook

“On Passover, the feast of freedom we should think about the similarities and differences and how on this night we can become Klal Chicago,” Manasseh said, using a Hebrew word which means “totality” or “community.”

Every afternoon during the summer, the group gathers on the corner of 75th and Stewart in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, where they also serve dinner and speak with neighborhood youth. The Seder was held on the same street corner.

“Whether you crossed the River Jordan, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Ohio, or the Mississippi, we have crossed all crossed over at some point in time, to become like Abraham the Hebrew, the one who crosses over,” Manasseh said, according to video of the event posted on Facebook. She has two children.

Gun violence in Chicago has spiked in recent years, particularly on the South Side. Some 6,000 people have been shot since the beginning of 2015, with last August being the deadliest month the city has seen in around two decades.

Manasseh is a lifelong member of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a largely black synagogue, also on the South Side, with Hebrew Israelite roots. That congregation is led by Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, a high-profile black rabbi who also happens to be cousin to former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Hebrew Israelites are people of color, mostly African-American, who identify as descendants of the biblical Israelites. There are multiple branches of the century-old movement. Funnye leads a branch that uses the honorific rabbi and studies the Talmud — not all do — and has sought to move his congregation and community into greater interaction with mainstream Jewish organizations.

Manasseh has emerged as an active and vocal member of her congregation, her activism with MASK being just one part. In 2012 she released a memoir, “Chai-ME,” with the subtitle, “My Exploration of Race, Religion and Spirituality in America.”

Manasseh is now studying at the Israelite Academy, the educational arm of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, and expects to be ordained either privately or through that institution this summer or early fall. The school is not associated with any of the major denominations and rabbis ordained there typically go on to become leaders within the Hebrew Israelite community.

Manasseh has combined religious rituals with MASK events in the past. For example, Manasseh organized a Yom Kippur breakfast in 2015. As part of the ceremony, volunteers read a list of names of everyone in Chicago who had been killed by gun violence in the last year and lit a candle for every month.

Like her rabbi, Funnye, Manasseh is forging connections with other Jews through her work, such as the recent Seder.

Speaking before the ritual meal, Manasseh compared the story of African-American’s slavery in this country to that of the biblical Israelites and modern-day Jews.

“Both people’s histories were forged in the crucible of bondage, one on the banks of the Nile, the other along the banks of the Ohio and Mississippi,” Manasseh said. “We called to the Creator of the universe for deliverance over the ages for liberation from our bondages.”

Email Sam Kestenbaum at [email protected]


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