A Passover question: Why was a seder in Summit different from all other seders? Answer: Because it was held at the Fountain Baptist Church.
Two nights before the beginning of Pesach, 170 of its African-American congregants joined with some 20 members of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in an interfaith celebration of liberation that resonated through the histories of both peoples.
Rabbi Hannah Orden of the Reconstructionist synagogue in Summit began the proceedings leading the singing of “Hinei ma tov u’manayim, shevet ahim gam yahad,” which she promptly translated into English: “How good it is when we dwell together as brothers and sisters.”
Although it was the first time the two congregations shared a seder, the relationship between church and synagogue members has existed for several years. “We started a series of dialogues on race,” she told NJ Jewish News after the ceremony ended. “I had the idea we should take Passover and use it to talk about racism today. So we decided we would have a seder together.”
For two-and-a-half hours, Jewish seder staples like “Dayenu” blended comfortably with such multicultural freedom songs as “Let My People Go” and the gospel favorite “Give Me That Old Time Religion” as celebrants recited bilingual prayers, dipped parsley into salt water, spread haroset on matzas, and sipped Manischewitz wine from plastic cups.
Explaining the holiday’s significance, Orden said, “In part it is the retelling of the story of the Israelites who were enslaved to a powerful ruler in Egypt and achieved liberation.”
“For me,” she went on, “Passover is most of all about hope. It is a holiday that celebrates the determination and resilience of the human spirit, even under the most terrible oppression.”
Holding a piece of matza aloft, the rabbi called it “the bread of poverty” before the seder-goers read in unison the words “Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.”
“It might seem strange for a bunch of white middle-class people to say ‘Now we are slaves,’” Orden told the crowd, “but there were many times in history when Jews faced oppression, and I think that saying this year after year has helped Jews to identify with oppressed people throughout history.”
After a recital of the traditional Ten Plagues that were inflicted on the ancient Egyptians, Orden asked participants to call out contemporary atrocities. Submissions ranged from AIDS, Ebola, the Zika Virus, mental illness, sickle cell disease, and cancer to war, police brutality, global warming, political oppression, racism, poverty, and human trafficking.
Then, connecting the brutal parts of Jewish and African-American history, the Rev. Vernon Williams, the church’s assistant pastor, traced slavery in America from the first arrival of indentured blacks in 1619 to the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the “freeing of some four million African-Americans.”
Williams said their liberation from bondage is celebrated annually in some African-American churches on New Year’s Eve in a ceremony called Watch Night, a commemoration of the slaves’ awaiting enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.
“Slavery happened to each of us. Redemption happened to each of us,” said the rabbi as she read from a commentary in the Haggada. “The reality of the possibility of liberation in the midst of slavery is the gift we bring to a world broken by continual oppressions that human beings inflict upon one another.”
Orden raised a wine glass filled with water, explaining that “Miriam’s Cup,” a relative ritual newcomer to the seder table, represented the importance of Moses’ sister and the other women who played major roles in liberating the Israelites. The water-filled goblet, Orden noted, also symbolizes the right of all people to drink clean water free of toxic contamination, in contrast to the lead-tainted water supplies in such cities as Newark and Flint, Mich.
As she ended the seder with the traditional aspiration of “Next year in Jerusalem,” Orden said, “Today, many Jews interpret Jerusalem to be not only a place but a hope for a future world of justice and peace for all people.”
Addressing the mixed congregation moments after the service had ended, Pastor Jay Sanders joked that “we as Baptists traditionally do not drink together. This is a new experience.”
Then, turning serious, he said to the rabbi, “We appreciate that you allowed us to get a feeling of what matters so much to your faith. For that we are truly grateful.”
Church members who had never before attended a seder found the experience rewarding.
Joanne Burns of Parsippany said, “To me, it was about being together with other religions and learning what other cultures are.”
Gretchen Jennings of Union found the seder to be “a wonderful gathering. When we come together, this is how we learn about different people’s religions and how we learn that we do have things in common.”
Her friend, Fay Clark of Springfield, called the observance “beautiful. If more communities did this it would break down the walls and people would see that we are more united than we are disconnected.”
“You know what else?” Jennings interjected. “You don’t see color. You see people.”