Kevin Brown, New Jersey state director of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), knows very well why the New Jersey Labor Seder is different from all other seders.
“We bring our communities together,” said Brown, who conducted the 19th Labor Seder, held April 16 at 32BJ SEIU headquarters in Newark. The event was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee (CRC) of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Labor Committee.
“We understand the effect of building relations,” said CRC director Linda Scherzer, and the Labor Seder “is one way we can accomplish this.”
Brown agreed: “Once a year, the Labor Seder is an excellent way for the Jewish community and federation to get to know the labor unions,” he said. “By breaking bread — in this case, matzah — we have a chance to get to know each other.
“We want to remind the Jewish community that labor unions are essential to building a strong middle class and creating good jobs.”
The 75 attendees represented different cultures and diverse interests, all sharing an evening that was planned as a mixture of Jewish history and ritual and their relation to the challenges of today.
The list of attendees included people of several faiths, community activists, and political aides.
“It’s important that we gather different community members and cultures,” said Brown. “If we can’t speak to each other, we’ll never build better communities.”
Since the N.J. Labor Seder was begun in 2000, the events have been held in synagogues, JCCs, churches, and union halls and on college campuses.
Participants use a special Haggadah, one that mixes the traditional story of the Israelites’ Exodus from bondage in Egypt with messages calling for justice for workers struggling to improve their lives and for refugees and the environment, elements that Brown called “the heart of the seder.” Everyone in attendance participated in the ceremony and took turns reading from the Haggadah.
After Marlene Herman, president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, and Scherzer lit the ritual candles, Rob Duffey, executive director of the N.J. Working Families Alliance, blessed the first of the seder’s four traditional cups of wine and talked about the need for economic and social justice in all communities, a key focus of the alliance.
The seder rituals and readings were augmented by the singing of “Oh Freedom,” a signature song of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
The custom of the spilling of drops of wine — representing the diminished joy of the holiday because of the Ten Plagues visited upon the ancient Egyptians — was followed by the recitation of dozens of contemporary plagues, including slave labor, racism, domestic violence, below-subsistence wages, and ethnic cleansing, accompanied by the spilling of additional drops of wine.
A “Labor Dayenu,” led by Arieh Lebowitz, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, emphasized that “not enough” has been done for the status of labor in society, repeating verses with the response of “Dayenu? No.”
Commentary on the second cup of wine was provided by Heather Ciociola, coleader of the N.J. Jewish Coalition for Refugees. The Jewish community must fight to uphold the tradition of “welcoming the stranger” that is referred to in all seders, she said, particularly considering obstacles that have been placed before refugees and asylum-seekers by the Trump administration.
The third cup featured a tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters read by Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, which helps Garden State residents with housing and tax issues.
She thanked those who organize the “great” Labor Seder event for continuing to invite her to participate. “It means a lot to me and the work we do with so many who need assistance,” she said.
Dr. Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Center of Basking Ridge, followed, decrying recent incidents of hatred against the Muslim community in New Jersey, including the recent bullying of a student at East Brunswick High School. “Islamophobia is increasing in New Jersey,” said Chaudry. “Anti-Semitism as well.”
Addressing that, Rabbi Avi Friedman, religious leader of Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit Jewish Community Center, spoke about the series of swastikas found in public schools in the town at the end of last year. “Six swastikas in less than four months,” said Friedman, who said he is frustrated the perpetrators have not been found (see sidebar).
Hanna Mori, N.J. state director for the Office of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), commented on Elijah’s Cup — a symbol of, among other things, trust and redemption — and the shared commitment of freedom and justice for all people.
The fourth cup was representative of the fight for environmental protection; Jeff Tittel, director of the N.J. Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that in line with other issues raised at the seder, the abuse of nature amounts to “environmental racism,” and lambasted those who continue to claim that climate change is a myth.
Other notables in attendance included New York-based Israeli Deputy Consul General Israel Nitzan and Andrew H. Gross, the consulate’s director of political affairs.
Lebowitz talked about the growth of the Labor Seders involving the Jewish Labor Committee.
“We started with six seders in 2000 and have added more. In addition to the original in New Jersey, which was held in 2000 at Temple Shalom in Cedar Grove, we’ve had them in Washington; Philadelphia; Boston; Newark; Houston; St. Louis; Madison, Wis.; and New York.
“We even had what was called a Union Seder in Sydney, Australia. They took all the American references out of the Haggadah and put in Australian ones, connecting the Jewish community with labor, as we always do.”
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