Focus on Issues: Retelling the Passover Story with a Vision of Coexistence
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Focus on Issues: Retelling the Passover Story with a Vision of Coexistence

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Arms linked around one another, the 180 souls gathered in the gaily painted synagogue sanctuary sang Shehecheyanu, a Hebrew prayer recited at festive gatherings.

On Sunday, the fifth night of Passover, the American Jews and Arab Americans sitting together at New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun celebrated a seder that told an ancient story of hardship and redemption.

But while there were four cups and four questions, roasted eggs and horseradish, sprigs of greens and salt water, little of the Haggadah, or “telling,” at the “Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah” reflected the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from “Mitzrayim,” the Hebrew word for Egypt.

Instead, the event examined the current “mitzrayim,” translated literally as “the narrow place.”

Today, the text by Rabbi Arthur Waskow says, that is the “place of bloodshed that comes from war between the two families of Abraham” — the Jews, Abraham’s descendants through Sarah’s son Isaac, and the Arabs, the children of Hagar’s son Ishmael.

The April 4 seder coincided with Easter and the anniversary of the 1968 death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It also came within a week of the Muslim festival Id al-Adha.

One of Islam’s holiest days, the “Feast of the Sacrifice” commemorates Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Ishmael, the Koranic version of the Torah’s sacrifice of Isaac — and a version that receives equal treatment in this newly written seder.

“There is a great common bond between Muslims and Jews,” both religious and historical, said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the president of the American Sufi Muslim Association, who opened the seder in New York by reciting the first verse of the Koran.

“The challenge for us is to develop a way we can live together, inshallah, in a way which is what we believe it would be in paradise.”

The seder’s vision of coexistence, while poetically penned, does not shrink from a political message.

The answer to the first of its newly interpreted “Four Questions” — “Why do we break the matzah in two?” — for example, answers that “the bread of affliction” becomes “the bread of freedom — when we share it.”

“Because the Land that gives bread to two peoples must be divided in two, so that both peoples may eat of it. So long as one people grasps the whole land, it is a land of affliction and no one is nourished by it. When each people can eat from part of the land, it will become a land of freedom.”

Published in the March/April issue of Tikkun magazine, the seder — which took place throughout the week at other sites in Philadelphia, Washington and Seattle — is Waskow’s third attempt, as he put it, to “look in our own generation for what it is that is keeping us unfree.”

In 1969, he wrote the “Freedom Seder,” which drew from the writings of King, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau, among others, and bought together some 800 celebrants.

That interreligious, interracial seder 30 years ago, he said, “broke open the sense that you could, in fact, remake your own Haggadah for your own redemption.”

In 1983, he took up a new theme with the “Seder of the Children of Abraham,” which stirred excitement, but also passionate criticism at a time when Israeli- Palestinian dialogue was considered taboo.

The 1993 Oslo peace accords signed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, however, muted American Jewish opposition to open dialogue between Jews and Arabs and raised the hope of imminent peaceful coexistence.

But with the peace negotiations between the current Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority at a near standstill, Waskow said, he decided to revisit the conflict.

The seder highlights accounts of “collisions” between Jews and Arabs – – including terrorist attacks and house demolitions — and acts of reconciliation that resulted from each.

In one of the most touching parts of the service, Jewish and Arab participants were invited to speak about personal interactions with their biblical “cousins.”

Ahssan Haj, a 38-year-old living in Brooklyn recalled an episode from his childhood in the Palestinian village of Taibeh. A Jewish student from the nearby town of Kfar Saba was expected in his home for a class visit. But the student’s refusal to enter Haj’s home, at the instruction of his parents, Haj said, was his “first experience of rejection.”

Later, he explained, as a social work student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in the 1980s, he met activist Jews who shared his hope for peace.

“I am proud to be here,” Haj said of the Arab-Jewish seder.

Midway through the service in New York, Waskow distributed copies of an ad produced by the Break the Silence campaign that had run the previous week in The New York Times.

A campaign led by hundreds of rabbis, the ad calls on American Jews to speak out against “the current Israeli government’s return to a policy of fear and non-cooperation with her Arab and Palestinian neighbors.”

The “lame-duck government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Waskow said, paraphrasing the ad, “is working day-to-day to shatter the emergence of a healthy peaceful Palestinian state beside a healthy, peaceful Israel.”

Waskow urged the New York group to move beyond dialogue — “not just waiting for, but pursuing peace” — by writing letters, working in groups and meeting with representatives in Congress.

Dissatisfaction with the stunted progress in peace negotiations was shared by many of the guests.

“Things seemed so hopeful when Rabin and Arafat were shaking hands in Washington,” said Theodora Saal, 37, a legal-aid lawyer and synagogue member who has been active in the peace movement. Attending the seder with her mother, she said the event, was “at least moving toward trying to motivate people.”

Many in the New York andience were already taking action.

Although most of the participants were congregants, guests included representatives from grass-roots Arab-Jewish groups, including Nisan, a young women’s leadership initiative for Jewish and Arab Israelis.

The four girls from the Nisan delegation spoke about their experiences growing up in Israel, as did Tamar Fono, 26, an administrator for the group.

“The first step in overcoming fear is just to know each other and just not to be afraid to hear” the other side’s story, she said.

At the end of the evening Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun sat with Imam Rauf, translating into Arabic the Hebrew words of “Hineh Mah Tov,” a song about brotherhood. Matalon said he hoped to hold the seder again next year, adding, “We hope to do something before next year.”

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