April 8, 2004
Groups Celebrate Seders With a Cause
At Jewish Family Service's Freedom Seder, participants read from a haggadah that was just a little bit different. Instead of reading of the four sons, those at the Freedom Seder read about the "four community members."
"The wise community member asks, 'How can we, as individuals, and a community, address domestic violence?'"
"The wicked community member asks, 'Why don't they just leave?'"
The focus of the Freedom Seder was liberation from domestic violence, and it was one of several seders in Los Angeles that celebrated not the exodus from Egypt but liberations of different kinds.
As one of the most elaborate rituals in the Jewish tradition, many groups have co-opted the seder's ceremony and traditions to express their own personal freedoms -- be it from violence at the Freedom Seder or bigotry at the Interfaith Alliance's Breaking the Silence Muslim-Jewish-Christian seder. At the Jewish Deaf Community Center's (JDCC) 10th annual community seder at Temple Adat Ari El, participants celebrated being able to observe the Jewish tradition in a manner that was accessible to all.
The Freedom Seder was held March 30 at a secret location. It was closed to the public to protect the identity of its participants, most of whom were women, both Jewish and not, who had been or were still in violent relationships.
The participants took the traditional haggadah and added their own narratives to it, like the poem, "From Withered to Freedom," by Marlys Nunneri, whose husband physically and emotionally abused her for 40 years and in June of 1999 shot her point-blank in the chest. Nunneri, who survived, wrote:
"My eyes were all red,
My body black and blue.
He would always blame me,
For things I didn't do."
"Whether these women are Jewish or non-Jewish, they are all celebrating the same thing," said Kitty Glass, JFS' outreach coordinator, who was careful to point out that Nunneri's case was an extreme example of domestic violence. "They are free from being hostages in their own homes, which is how many of the women describe it."
A few days earlier on March 28, Rabbi Steven Jacobs from Congregation Kol Tivkah; Dr. Nazir Khaja, president of the Islamic Information Service; the Rev. Ed Bacon, All Saints Church in Pasadena, and Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple Center, hosted Breaking the Silence: A Passover Celebration Seeking Peace and Reconciliation Seder at Kol Tikvah for members of their respective congregations.
Like the Freedom Seder, Breaking the Silence used a revised haggadah, one that contained excerpts from the Torah, the Quran and the Christian Bible. One-hundred-and-eighty participants of different faiths sat together. The aim of the seder was to show that the message of Passover is one of reconciliation and peace, and that religion does not have to be governed by bigoted extremists.
"Tonight's commemoration of the seder together," wrote Khaja in the haggadah, "gives us the unique opportunity to come together, not blinded by emotions and passions that have kept us divided but truly as a people moving forward towards liberation from cynicism, mistrust and doubt."
At the Jewish Deaf Community Center's seder held on the second night of Passover, the celebration was on being able to enjoy the ceremony without the inconvenience caused by disability. The JDCC's seder was a multimedia one, with a video service projected onto large screens. The service, which was hosted by deaf Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, featured voiceover narration, captions and sign language.
"For years, deaf people have had to look at their haggadah books and try to follow the leaders or sign-language interpreters," it says on JDCC's Web site. "JDCC decided to develop a user-friendly seder, allowing us to focus on the screen without having to worry about what page we are on."
Sharon Ann Dror, president of JDCC, communicating with The Journal through use of a teletext telephone, said that she developed the seder because of a lack of religious services for deaf Jews.
"The Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA] provides equal access for deaf people. For example, at the Mark Taper Forum, they need to show captioned movies once a week. When my kid takes a class at the park, they need to find the money for sign-language interpreters. But the Jewish community is not affected by the ADA, because of the separation of church and state," Dror said.
Dror said that she started her organization when she saw the way her three deaf children were being denied religious education and religious participation because of a lack of funds.
Religious organizations "complained that there was not enough money to pay for interpreters, so I decided to solve my own problem and start my own program," she said.
For more information about the Family Violence Project, call (818) 789-1293.
For information about Breaking the Silence, call (818) 358-0670.
For information about Jewish Deaf Community Center, visit www.jdcc.org .