July 20, 2019

Who Knows 18? 18 Community Voices Contemplate Passover

With Passover upon us, there are a lot of topics swirling through our collective minds: the Mueller report, terror in New Zealand, the ongoing occurrences of school shootings, the increase in anti-Semitism worldwide, the Palestinian conflict, the Israeli election and its aftermath, and the tendency toward outrage at everyday news. So we asked prominent community figures how they are incorporating today’s important conversations into their Passover preparations. What ideas will they bring to their seder tables and how are they committing to the ideals of freedom, liberation and miracles in the months ahead?

Pour out Your rage; Pour out Your love
“Pour out Your rage …” During the Crusades, this prayer was added to our seder. In it, we ask God to institute justice in response to our persecution. Like the Exodus, it’s not about human intervention, but God’s intervention and salvation. Many of us today pray for God’s protection as we feel the rise of anti-Semitism. Pesach reminds us that God has an active hand in our lives, and it’s deeply comforting to recall and pray for his intervention. But we may also yearn for ways to proactively join God in this, as well. Throughout the seder, we hear several possibilities: We uphold faith, education, continuity, memory and justice. In his haggadah commentary, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks includes a striking addition: In a haggadah manuscript in 1521, next to “Pour out Your rage,” the Jews of Worms added, “Pour out Your love.” This was directed to righteous gentiles who protected Jews. This, too, is worth reflecting on at our seders: When do love and interfaith ties combat anti-Semitism, and when is rage necessary to realize Divine justice? What is solely in God’s hands, and what is our responsibility? This Pesach, may we feel God’s hand guiding us to be worthy and wise partners in our redemption.
— Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea

Focusing on hope
I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world today. Last year, I asked our seder guests to share something on the theme of protest and resistance. This year, I need to focus on the positive, so our theme is: “What makes you hopeful or optimistic — what brings you joy as you think about Passover ideals of liberation, freedom and miracles?”

What makes me joyful during difficult times? At the Ruach Nashim weekend at Camp Ramah, 75 women of all ages unplugged, learned Jewish texts, ate, prayed, sang, danced, laughed and ate again. We created a safe Jewish space to be ourselves and to feel supported by an incredible sisterhood. I felt liberated from the oppressive din of negativity that fills our airwaves and social media.

Next month, I will participate in a multifaith iftar (evening meal during Ramadan), sponsored by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. At a time when Jewish and Muslim worshippers have been murdered in their respective houses of prayer, I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate faith, friendship and shared values with my Muslim sisters and brothers. I look forward to learning and dialogue, and a chance to begin to know one another, deeply.
— Tzivia Schwartz Getzug, community activist and philanthropic consultant; board member, Camp Ramah and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change

Aging and intuition
This year’s Passover preparation has two special areas of focus for me. Having just turned 60, I’m thinking a lot about the passage of time. How does coming back to the same celebrations, year after year, offer new insights, deeper reflections, a sense of flow? The second area of thought is about the faith in redemption that is itself a part of the reality of redemption. The Children of Israel were asked to believe that God would work through Moses, that Pharaoh would be humbled, that they would march to freedom. Lacking any real evidence, how is that kind of faith cultivated? How do we mobilize an inner conviction that makes possible our acting on its behalf? On reflecting for a moment, I realize that these are not two separate considerations, but really present the ripening of one grand insight: With the passage of the years, we learn to rely on an intuition that isn’t just empirical or analytical. We weave our intuitions and our aspirations into the fabric of objective reality, giving meaning and significance to the journey.
— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair, professor of philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University

Let’s see what else I can get rid of that removes me from my unprocessed, pure self this Pesach. Let’s all try to do things differently. Who’s in?

— Mayim Bialik

In liberation, remembering our past
This Passover season, it is easier than ever for American Jews to remember that we were once strangers in a strange land. Anti-Semitic acts and statements have not only become routine but alarmingly tolerated. This heightened sense of vulnerability among American Jews binds us with vulnerable Jews throughout history and should bind every Jew together today. But instead of locking arms, the Jewish community is fiercely divided. Right-left, religious-secular, traditional-pluralistic, Israeli-Diaspora, our Jewish communities are at odds. We are once again wandering in the desert. But this time, with far too many Moseses and Aarons with their own agendas, we are not wandering together in the same direction. It is troubling to think what would have happened to the Israelites if we were so divided when we were liberated from Egypt. Liberation not only enables us to set our own course but requires us to remember from whence we came. If we forget our common legacy, we might lose our shared destiny as a people.
— Sam Yebri, president, 30 Years After; board member, Jewish Community Foundation

Beginning our journeys slowly
Passover is often a rush. There’s cleaning to finish, shopping to complete. It makes sense; Passover famously began when the Jews hurried out of Egypt before their bread could rise. Rushing is fundamental to the holiday. But this Passover, I’m going slowly. We define “Pesach” as “skipping over” — as God skipped over the Jewish homes during the final plague. But Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch (1808-88) suggests that “Pesach” means to “step haltingly.” Walking slowly, with hesitation. Perhaps there’s more to Passover than rushing.

Every Jewish journey has moments of clarity in which we confidently pursue our direction. But clarity isn’t always forthcoming. At such moments, take heart in the second meaning of Pesach — baby steps. Not every stride must be long and confident. Sometimes we walk haltingly, unsure of our destination, with faith that we’ll get there in the end.

Find time this Passover to stop rushing and enjoy a slower pace. Take baby steps with your family at the seder, at shul while participating in new classes, and with yourself, appreciating the arc of your Jewish journey, even though you may not know its ending. This Passover, begin a new journey. Slowly.
— Rabbi Ari Segal, Head of School, Shalhevet High School

Trying something new
What I’m taking into this holiday: trying something new. That sounds banal, but I mean it very mindfully. This year, my ex-husband and I are taking our moms and our kids to a Jewish family camp for the seders. We have never done anything like this before but it feels good to try something new. Cleaning out my pantry for the holiday, I found out something new about myself: I don’t want to replenish all of the cookies and tea biscuits and chametz that makes me not feel good when I eat it year round. After Pesach, I won’t be buying these things again — at least not regularly. I’m recently single again. And in my work life, I’m about to be unemployed and am hoping for new opportunities in which I can do things that move me and make me feel I’m contributing to society in significant ways. 

Because I share my experiences with my online community, I am excited to go into this Passover with the opportunity to share what’s new in my situation, what’s new for our collective experience and how we can all bring newness to our lives. Let’s see what else I can get rid of that removes me from my unprocessed, pure self this Pesach. Let’s all try to do things differently. Who’s in?
— Mayim Bialik, actress and neuroscientist

Making Pesach personal: Sharing our stories
Pesach has always been an important holiday in my life. At our Federation, we host several seders, from a staff seder for more than 150 to an interfaith community seder for leaders throughout Los Angeles. In thinking about this year, I am even more committed to these words in our haggadah: “In every generation, a person is obligated to view him or herself as if he/she were the one who went out of Egypt.” Pesach is and should be deeply personal to every one of us. We all have personal Exodus stories, in which we have gone from slavery to freedom. Today, all around us and around the world, people are struggling to escape oppression and almost inconceivable life circumstances. There are modern-day intolerant and hateful Pharaohs around us, promoting anti-Semitism and prejudice of all kinds. We must use this Pesach to share our own stories and to discuss the stories of those not among us and take this sacred obligation and make it our individual and communal calling for the year ahead.
— Jay Sanderson, president and CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Fear, faith and moving forward
The trajectory of the seder moves forward: from degradation to praise, from bread of affliction to bread of freedom. How do we experience the seder during times that feel, in many ways, like moving backward? Let’s go to that moment “on dry ground in the middle of the sea” during the Exodus from Egypt. Although Torah tells us that Moses used God’s staff to clear a path for the Israelites, a midrash sees it differently: The sea didn’t split until the Israelites walked in up to their noses. All of them. When I taught this text in high school, inevitably, one of my concrete thinkers would ask, “What if they weren’t all the same height?” I would answer, “And how did they get 600,000 in the water at the same time?” Then we would talk about metaphor, considering the possibility that through their fear, all the Israelites harnessed enough faith to move forward. But perhaps the original question was a fruitful one. We stand at the edge of the sea, each of us with our own “height” — our own perspectives and opinions. Perhaps it’s time for us to listen to one another across those differences and choose to move forward anyway — not in complete unity — but in community.
— Andrea Hodos, program co-director, NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change

The oppression of Pharaoh is not just
making you do things you don’t want to do; in the inner life tradition, Pharaoh is also the voice that convinces you that
everything you think is correct. The
spiritual Pharaoh erases doubt and humility.

— Rabbi Mordecai Finley 

Should Judaism be timely or timeless?
My rabbinic attention and intentions are split. On one hand, I want my rituals and my community’s experience of Judaism to hum with relevance, to speak to the moment in time we inhabit, to be shaken free of centuries of accumulated dust and be truly vital and alive. On the other hand, it is Judaism’s timelessness that speaks to me most deeply, allowing me to be in conversation with Maimonides, the Chasidic masters and the talmudic sages, without excess mediation or manipulation. I already have used communal events this year to link meta-themes of liberation with the lived experiences of modern-day refugees, and I will continue to do so, from the bimah and at my family’s seder.

Yet, more of my rabbinic energy will focus on somewhat more elemental aspects of the holiday: how to make a seder come alive, whatever theme one uses to anchor it. How can a family link a recent return to a home, after renovation, or a cancer diagnosis or recovery, to the themes of Pesach, such that the seder will hum with personal relevance? And is vegan cheese bought before Pesach acceptable to use on Pesach? A rabbi is a leader, attempting to open as many eyes as possible. A rabbi is also a responder, addressing the Jewish questions and anxieties already present in people’s minds. A rabbi is a translator, conveying the deepest wisdom of our tradition in a way that can touch the most people possible, in the most poignant of ways. This year, this night, is no different than any other.
— Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am

Liberating ourselves from toxic influences
It has been my sad experience that oftentimes attempting to discuss societal problems at a Passover seder, even with people with whom one agrees, often exacerbates judgmentalism, anger, bigotry and hatred. 

We need liberation from toxic thoughts, feelings, emotions and speech. We need to turn judgmentalism into good moral rational judgment. We need to turn anger into clarity and resolve, bigotry and hatred into intolerance of sloganeering. 

 The oppression of Pharaoh is not just making you do things you don’t want to do; in the inner life tradition, Pharaoh is also the voice that convinces you that everything you think is correct. The spiritual Pharaoh erases doubt and humility. 

To be sure, getting through life requires erect posture and confident strides. In the pauses, we need to cultivate the liberation of inner skepticism. “I know I think it, but am I right?” “I know I feel this, but are my feelings rooted in reality?” In the inner life, we try to see Mount Sinai in the distance, and seek the truth.
— Rabbi Mordecai Finley, OhrHaTorah.org

Remembering the refugee experience
The Jewish story is one of being forced to cross boundaries from one land to another, wandering from the time of Abraham to the Exodus, from our exile from Jerusalem through millennia of kingdoms expelling us at whim. We remember the fear of persecution, the danger of fleeing and the anxiety of starting over. We remember that our security and freedom are left to the chance of history and the accident of our birth.

The bread of affliction belongs to all those who are hungry, as we invite them to come and eat. Our invitation is open to all, especially the refugees of today. The blessing of freedom is not something limited to one people or one creed: It is meant for us all, and all are welcome here. 

The bread of affliction reminds us never to grow callous, even when my people are safe. It is not enough to tell the story of the past. There is still hunger and suffering. This year, we will work harder for all to be free.  

On Passover, we start in despair when we remember — arami oved avi — my ancestor was a refugee. And we move to hope as we share the bread of affliction — ha lachma anya — and create a world where people open their doors to all who are in need. As we light the yom tov candles, we replace darkness with light and despair with hope.
— Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

The haggadah spells out its major themes, like
freedom and redemption, with stark contrasts, point and counterpoint. But it also slips in some other ideas, like comity and generosity, under the radar.

— Joshua Holo

Stepping into the unknown
The traditional seder story ends neither at the moment of our departure, nor yet at Sinai or the Promised Land, but having crossed the Red Sea. Although we frequently focus on our liberation — that we were brought out of bondage — the narrative also contains the terrifying moment when we were surrounded, our pursuers on one side and seemingly endless waters on the other. In the face of overwhelming and paralyzing threats, we had only ourselves and our faith. Enter Nachshon, the first Israelite to risk the Red Sea crossing. Midrash does not say that he leaped or dived. Rather, he took tentative steps, letting the water gradually cover his legs, his midriff, his shoulders and finally, his nose — at which point the waters parted. The challenges we face, from homelessness and climate change to anti-Semitism and extremism, may appear as daunting as an impassable sea. Responding to them need not paralyze us nor require blind leaps into the unknown. Perhaps our charge simply is to persevere, one foot in front of the other — one unit of supportive housing, one solar panel, one mind changed at a time — until the sum of our steps brings us all to redemption.
— Shawn Landres, co-founder of Jumpstart; chairman, L.A. County Quality and Productivity Commission; member, Santa Monica Planning Commission

Four more questions
The story is told that one day, when no student had any questions about the talmudic text they were studying, the great teacher and scholar Rav Soloveitchik (1903-93) closed his Talmud and walked out of class, saying, “No questions, no class.” In the same spirit, when we sit down to our Passover seder, I say, “No new questions, no seder.” This year, with the ever-widening religious and political gaps in today’s Jewish world, I have “four big questions” that I plan to ask and discuss at my seder:

1. What fosters a stronger sense of Jewish identity for the younger generation: teaching Jewish history, Jewish philosophy or Jewish law?

2. What does being a “Chosen People” mean today, if anything at all?

3. Should Jewish communities focus more on worrying about anti-Semitism or caring about tikkun olam?

4. What is more likely to guarantee the survival of the Jewish people: ritual observance, social justice or a strong State of Israel?

Thank God we have two seders in the Diaspora!
— Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of Sephardic Educational Center; rabbi, Westwood Village Synagogue

Acknowledging complicity, running toward destiny
The Chasidic interpretation of chametz as leavened (or inflated) ego leaves all of us without impunity. Even Moses. Shemot Rabbah (1:30) places us inside Moses’ thoughts when he is confronted by two Hebrew slaves who recognize him as the one who struck the Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand. Perhaps acknowledging his own guilt, Moses considers the actions of the Hebrews: “What did they do that merited their place in slavery, anyway?” Perhaps this should be our fifth question this year: “What did I do to arrive in this narrow place?” 

The truth is that we are all complicit. Don’t like our “Pharaoh” or the president? Well, maybe he too closely resembles that which we are loathe to acknowledge within ourselves. 

This Passover, rather than blame “the other,” I am reminded of the man Moses buried in the sand. And how, when he inquired about the morality of another, he was able to acknowledge that which he himself hid away. Fueled by that reckoning, Moses sought his own moral reversal and ran toward his destiny. This Passover, I dedicate myself to owning my chametz, as I flee Egypt and my complicity in what enslaves — myself and others — as I turn toward my own Revelation.
— Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Open Temple

Passover is the time to think deeply about what it means to be free and living in an open society. At my seder, we will be talking about whether people trying to cross a border bear any resemblance to our ancestors crossing the Red Sea or being denied entrance to America when they were fleeing oppression.

— Janice Kamenir-Reznik

Considering collective liberation
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement. Passover is about liberation, after all. The Exodus story is the story about how a people can throw off oppression and find peace through self-determination. In our modern era with the State of Israel, we also should be thinking of not only our liberation, but collective liberation. How do all peoples who want to be free find a path to their freedom? As Jews, Zionism to me is part of a tapestry of liberation that should include all peoples wishing for freedom. This Passover, after we have recited the texts that imbibe our souls with the quest to be free, let us use our Zionism to reach beyond our community and embrace those who are not yet free.
— Rabbi Noah Farkas, Valley Beth Shalom 

Confronting the immigration policy crisis
Among the disturbing issues confronting Jewish Americans this Passover is how we confront the growing immigration policy crisis in this country. Last year, when children were separated from their families at the border, many Jews (not nearly enough) and some (far too few) Jewish organizations decried the action and even dedicated their 2018 seders to discussions of the topic. This month, The New York Times revealed that the government reported that “[i]t may take federal officials two years to identify what could be thousands of immigrant children who were separated from their families at the southern United States border,” hundreds of whom may never be reunited with their families due to the manner in which this unspeakable policy was administered by our government. And, as if these measures were not cruel enough, we are faced with an announcement by President Donald Trump’s administration that these policies have been “too soft” and that new, more aggressive anti-immigration policies must be adopted. Hence, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned to make way for “tougher” leadership. This information and situation should shock the Jewish and American conscience buried in each of us and compel us to vigorously protest such policies and practices. 

Passover is the time to think deeply about what it means to be free and living in an open society. At my seder, we will be talking about whether people trying to cross a border bear any resemblance to our ancestors crossing the Red Sea or being denied entrance to the United States when they were fleeing oppression. Will our collective Jewish experience and psyche developed through the arc of our history — from the time of our slavery through the time of our Holocaust to our Soviet Jewry movement and beyond — guide us to act compassionately toward the stranger or will we be among those who close doors and build walls? Will we abide by the most prevalent commandment in the Torah to welcome and care for the stranger, the widow and the disenfranchised, or have we lost our way?
— Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; current chair of Beit T’Shuvah and of Jews United for Democracy and Justice

This year, I’m most concerned about the silent son in the haggadah, the child who doesn’t know how to tell the story. It means the rest of us, the ones able to speak up and speak out, are cultivating generations of ignorance. And where there is silence, there is a gaping hole ready to filled by fallacies and lies.

— Rabbi Nicole Guzik 

Addressing the silent child
This year, I’m most concerned about the silent son in the haggadah, the child who doesn’t know how to tell the story. It means the rest of us, the ones able to speak up and speak out, are cultivating generations of ignorance. And where there is silence, there is a gaping hole ready to filled by fallacies and lies. I leave soon for my second journey with March of the Living. I will travel with Sinai Temple, primarily parents in our Sinai Akiba Academy community, Jews who vow to bring back the lessons of the Holocaust, teaching our children that anti-Semitism continues to lurk in places we least expect. These community members are reminding our children that when a high schooler thinks it’s funny to give a Nazi salute, it’s inexcusable on seder night to leave out our memories of tragedy, hope, terror and resilience.

In Tim O’Brien’s revelations of the Vietnam War, he writes, “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.” The retelling of the stories of the Holocaust, to those at the seder table and perhaps, most importantly, the ones missing, will enable the chain of memory to link to future generations. But to stare blankly at the silent child is to join in the brewing of a precarious future for the Jews of tomorrow.
— Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple

The spirit of spring
Every step of the seder is pregnant with symbolic meaning. The haggadah spells out its major themes, like freedom and redemption, with stark contrasts, point and counterpoint. But it also slips in some other ideas, like comity and generosity, under the radar. Charoset, salt water and matzo indicate slavery, putting freedom into sharp relief. And freedom is represented by what? Perhaps the lamb shank, but mostly by the karpas and spring. All of which feels like a stretch: We can imagine why spring feels freeing in a general way, but it doesn’t necessarily bespeak freedom from slavery.

In fact, spring represents God’s compassion, the undoing of slavery. On Rosh Hashanah, God deals in justice, but on the spring holiday of Passover, God relates to us with generosity and asks us to do the same: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Like the contrast between karpas and matzo, the rebellious child exists as a foil to the wise one, merely to underline Passover’s redemptive message. Both children serve the same purpose. Perhaps we can apply the spirit of spring to see ourselves in one another, with more in common than not: a shared love of freedom and a common destiny.
— Joshua Holo, dean of the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion