Freedom Seder reboot resists present-day ‘pharaoh’

Rabbi Arthur Waskow led the first Freedom seder in Washington in 1969, creating a Haggadah that wove in contemporary stories of liberation with the Exodus story. (Photos by Hannah Monicken)

A year shy of a half-century ago, 800 people crowded into a church basement in Washington for something revolutionary. It was called the Freedom Seder. Powered by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a year earlier, it brought blacks and whites, Jews and Christians together in a radical retelling of the Passover story that intertwined the African American and Jewish experiences in their movement from slavery and oppression to freedom.

At the center of it all was a young radical named Arthur Waskow. King’s assassination and the riots in Washington that followed had awakened his Jewish identity, and he had written a new Haggadah for the Freedom Seder.

On April 3, Waskow, now 84, stood before an interfaith crowd of 300 in the basement of another Washington church. Long a rabbi on the edge of the Jewish mainstream, he told those gathered for the Freedom Seder’s 49th anniversary that every age has its pharaoh.

When the riots broke out in Washington after the King assassination and the city was occupied by the National Guard, Waskow had a revelation as he headed home for Passover: he suddenly recognized the occupation as “Pharaoh’s army.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) was 6 when he attended the first Freedom Seder with his father.

“We have to see our gathering as an impetus for action,” Waskow said at last week’s seder. “What can we do to resist the pharaoh of this generation?”

Waskow, founder of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, said the pharaoh of this generation is much the same as the one King fought — systemic racism, poverty, materialism, inequality — now personified by President Donald Trump. It is time to recommit to fighting these ills, he said.

“For me, even before the 2016 election, there was a sense that 50 years from King’s death things weren’t moving forward,” he told WJW.

It was early in 2018 when Waskow reached out to Michael Tabor, a Takoma Park resident and an organizer of the 1969 seder, and his wife, Esther Siegel, to undertake another Freedom Seder.

Tabor was a member of Jews for Urban Justice, a group that organized the first Freedom Seder. The group was anti-Vietnam War and anti-establishment. The Jewish establishment was hostile to the young activists organizing the 1969 seder, Tabor said. This year, the seder was funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, he added.

Each table was set
up with all the elements necessary for a seder plate.

This year’s seder was held in the basement of Silver Spring United Methodist Church. Siegel said organizers had contacted the church to participate because of the large “Black Lives Matter” sign on its lawn. The nearby IMAAM Center, a mosque, also participated as did the Jewish communities of Fabrangen in Washington and Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase.

The seder participants skewed older and more Jewish than the 1969 celebration. Several attendees had also been at the original Freedom Seder.

One was Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) who was 6 when he came to the seder with his father.

“Passover is a holiday that calls us to identify with the slaves, the other, the downtrodden,” he told WJW. Politics, he added, is an endeavor that vacillates between power and justice. “Passover calls us back to the justice side.”

At the seder, Raskin named 10 modern plagues, including climate change, gun violence, sexual harassment and abuse of women, racism, hate speech and militarism.

Some 300 people attended last week’s Freedom Seder, which was held in the basement of the Silver Spring United Methodist Church.

Imam Fahmi Zubir told the gathering that anonymous letters in Britain and had declared April 3 “Punish a Muslim Day.” The letters had made the social media rounds in the United States as well.

“There are terrorists in every community,” Zubir said. “And a terrorist is just a terrorist. He or she is not following the commandment of any religion.”

The seder was led by Rabbi Gilah Langner, of Kol Ami Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community and Shirat HaNefesh.

Waskow’s do-it-yourself Haggadah for the 1969 seder was an innovation. The once-radical act has been credited in recent events at the Center for Jewish History in New York and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia with influencing activist-focused seders in the nearly 50 years since the Freedom Seder.

As the seder ended last week, Waskow said he had been invigorated.

“The energy was electric. Maybe not quite as electric as the first one, which was the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death,” he said. “[But] it felt very exciting to be renewing the old and also moving forward.”

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