Jews have long celebrated freedom as part of the Passover seder, but any look at a newspaper these days provides a reminder that the topic is as relevant as ever.
Inspired by the mass uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, more than 150 people gathered for a Universal Freedom Seder April 14 at the Olympic Collection Banquet Hall & Conference Center in West Los Angeles. The event, which included music by internationally known Israeli artist Idan Raichel, attracted a mix of Jews, Muslims, Christians and a host of other faiths.
Ruth Broyde Sharone, a documentary filmmaker and interfaith activist, said she was moved by recent events to co-organize the nontraditional seder.
“I saw the revolution in Egypt, and I heard them shouting, ‘Down with Pharaoh!’ ” she said. “The idea was to sort of honor the resilience and the struggle of the Egyptian people, especially when there was so little violence compared to what is going on in other countries there.”
The Culver City resident didn’t want to stop there. She wanted to use the framework of the seder, in which Jews recall the exodus from Egypt, to bring attention to the yearning for human rights and dignity shared by so many faiths — and even people who don’t have any faith.
“Anybody who’s human gets to sit at this table, not to talk about how we call God, or what is sacred, but to talk about human dignity, freedom and the desire to be liberated from whatever it is that’s oppressing us,” she said in an interview prior to the seder.
The event itself was led by members of the three Abrahamic faiths: Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista; the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, founder of The Guibord Center: Religion Inside Out; Imam Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California; and Mahmoud Abdel-Baset, former director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center.
Although there were plates of matzah on tables, little else seemed traditional. The usual holiday redemption symbols of bitter herbs and the paschal lamb were supplemented with modern ones, like cement squares representing the public squares that were at the center of the recent uprisings. The benediction consisted of a group reading of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In front of an audience wearing yarmulkes and headscarves, the religious leaders took turns telling the story of liberation in different ways. They shared narratives of people escaping from misery to blessing and engaged participants in text study, adapting the usual seder framework to focus on thematic similarities between the religions.
“Our theme in Judaism of human freedom — the dignity of human beings — is shared by all faiths,” Finley said.
Turk, who said he hoped participants would gain an appreciation and respect for one another through their interactions at the seder, reminded the audience that Muslims celebrate Passover, too; it just happens at a different time of the year, during their holiday Ashura.
Live music was interspersed throughout the evening and played a large part in the seder as well, with lyrics varying from English to Hebrew to Arabic. Dalit Argil, a performer and a co-organizer of the event, said music can act as a tool to bridge gaps between people and their different cultures.
It “opens people’s hearts to connect to themselves and each other,” the singer/songwriter from Woodland Hills said.
She called the evening “a holy collaboration.”
Jon Hooten, special assistant to the president at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, couldn’t have agreed more, saying he found the experience to be wonderful and timely for the area’s interfaith community.
“The idea of freedom and how it’s being connected to world events, that’s really powerful,” he said.
Adela Barnett, a member of Ohr HaTorah, said she left the evening spiritually uplifted.
“It was really nice to see all three [Abrahamic] religions come together on this,” the Redondo Beach woman said. “That gave me hope.”