It was the social tumult of the ‘60s — its battles for civil rights, impassioned protests against the Vietnam War, and political upheavals — that compelled Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow to organize his first groundbreaking reimagining of the traditional feast marking the beginning of Passover, an event he dubbed “The Freedom Seder.”
A half-century later, Waskow said, the political moment calls for another revision.
“We’re in at least as deep a crisis now – probably deeper – than we were 50 years ago,” he said. “There needed to be another incarnation of the Freedom Seder.”
And so, on Sunday, Waskow -- founder of Mount Airy’s Shalom Center and one of the leading voices of liberal Judaism -- celebrated the 50th anniversary of that first Freedom Seder with a new iteration, updated to address the economic, political, and religious divisions plaguing our nation today.
Joined by an interfaith, interracial program of speakers, Waskow led a crowd of more than 400 through his most recent adaptation of the Haggadah, the text recited during the observance.
This time, even the venue – Masjidullah, a West Oak Lane mosque -- was purposefully chosen as a call for people of all faiths to stand together against injustice and prejudice of any form.
Passover, the eight-day holiday that this year will begin at sundown on April 19, celebrates the story of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.
And though the long, dark beard Waskow wore during the first Freedom Seder in 1969 may have long ago faded into a snowy white, the 85-year-old rabbi’s observance Sunday was no less barbed or “of the moment” in its message.
Speakers ranging from a Presbyterian minister to the founder of the first Arabic language public school in New York City decried the resurgence of white supremacist movements around the world and President Donald Trump’s family separation policy at the border.
They mourned for the victims of recent mass shootings at a Christian church in Charleston, S.C., at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. They called for economic support to impoverished communities and recited traditional blessings in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish.
“What is the pathway to freedom when far too many leaders – political and religious – cower and capitulate in the face of power for partisan and extremist advantage rooted in racism, classism, Islamophobia, homophobia, fear, and downright demonic meanness?” asked the Rev. William J. Barber II, an internationally known civil rights activist, as he delivered the rite’s concluding prophetic charge.
Abdul-Halim Hassan, imam at Masjidullah, said he didn’t hesitate when approached to host Waskow’s anniversary seder. He has long considered the rabbi an inspiration though they come from different faiths.
“There’s this term we use at the masjid – ‘the shoulders who upon we stand,’” he said. “I’ve been standing on [Waskow’s] shoulders for years.”
Still, holding a celebration of a Jewish holiday in a house of Muslim worship posed certain logistical issues.
For instance: How to handle a staple of any seder table – the kosher wine – in the home of a faith that prohibits alcohol? The answer -- said Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman, Waskow’s wife and co-organizer of the celebration -- was a specially designed grape juice that was both kosher and halal.
Meanwhile, the ritual naming of seven plagues visited upon Egypt – here replaced by scourges afflicting modern society including racism, militarism, materialism, and sexism — was interrupted briefly to accommodate the Muslim call to sunset prayers.
But interfaith roots have been a part of the Freedom Seder since its first iteration, held at an African American church in Washington on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
King’s murder provoked riots in cities across the country, including the nation’s capital, where President Lyndon Johnson called out the National Guard and imposed a curfew that put hundreds of people in jail.
Waskow, who was then working as a secular community activist, said the sight of military convoys rolling through his largely black neighborhood on the first night of Passover triggered something inside of him.
“My insides began saying, ‘This is Pharaoh’s army,’” he said. “I was going home to celebrate liberation and there’s Pharaoh’s armies on the streets. The seder became this volcano of energy I had to write. It was just an absolute necessity.”
The Haggadah he delivered the following year – published in 1969 in Ramparts magazine – became a phenomenon in liberal Judaism, launching a host of imitations penned around themes such as feminism, peace, and the environment.
But not everyone loved Waskow’s reimagination of the Passover observance. Some viewed it as an unwelcome distortion of tradition or an injection of divisive political debates into the celebration of a religious holiday.
Still, the need to challenge injustice is no less great today, said Waskow and his assorted speakers Sunday.
“It’s a different cast of characters but all of those ‘-isms’ still exist — all of those things that plague our society continue,” said Debbie Almontaser, board president of the Muslim Community Network. “It’s really a moral imperative for us all to band together.”
Hoping to enlist their audience in their fight, the seder’s organizers passed out postcards to each attendee, urging them to write down specific steps they intend to take to combat the modern world’s plagues.
The postcards will be mailed back to their authors in about a week – a reminder that commitment to their cause should extend beyond the holy days of their various faiths.
“Hopefully, people won’t just leave here thinking, ‘Well, that was great,” Waskow said. “They’ll be reminded to make a real commitment.”