Black-Jewish seder held to promote understanding

An enthusiastic crowd of nearly 100 helped make Palo Alto's first Freedom Seder, a festive gathering of African-Americans and Jews, a resounding success.

Sponsored by the Peninsula branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the April 12 seder was conducted jointly by Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth and the Rev. Jonathan Staples of Jeremiah Baptist Church in Palo Alto.

Setting the tone for the evening, the rabbi opened the seder at Kol Emeth by saying, "Friendship is when you sit down and share, eating and telling stories together. The themes of oppression and freedom go beyond the Jewish community."

Said Staples: "The roots of Christianity are deep in Judaism. We have a lot of shared history and traditions. The more we share, the better we can understand one another. We can provide a moral voice and shared values here."

In addition to reading from the Haggadah, participants were encouraged to share their own stories of oppression and freedom.

The rabbi asked people to tell of prejudicial incidents they had experienced.

Nine-year-old Rebecca Pierce of Palo Alto, responded that when she walked home from school one day, she was called a name because she is African-American. When she returned to school and told the principal, no action was taken, she said.

Her friend Suzy Rosen-Levin, commented, "I feel really good about this seder." But the 9-year-old added, "I am sad that we hear so many stories of people cheating on others because of the color of their skin or their religion."

Justin Crutchfild, 13, described the event — his first seder — as "a very interesting, new experience. I see real parallels of freedom."

Sitting next to him, and helping to answer Crutchfild's questions, was Marc Grinberg, also of Palo Alto.

"I really think it is a good idea to bridge the gap between these two strong communities," said the 16-year-old. "It is a new concept for me to teach about the different Passover traditions and learn what others think of the service."

That sort of exchange was exactly what organizers of the seder had hoped for.

"I feel that if our youth start doing things together, it will help to build a foundation of understanding," said Lisa Cohen, the JCRC board chair who organized the preparations.

The seder meal was prepared at Kol Emeth by four church and four synagogue members. Youth also participated, as did Staples, who made charoset. Every table in the congregation's social hall was covered with a brightly colored tablecloth, and bore a plate with the traditional seder symbols.

The event "was an outgrowth of meetings held following the anti-hate rally in Palo Alto last summer," according to Yitzhak Santis, JCRC regional director. "Since Rev. Staples had already participated in a joint seder on the East Coast, he was very interested in having one here."

In welcoming everyone to the seder, Staples said, "We are celebrating a tradition that is more than 3,000 years old."

The Haggadah was adapted from an interfaith service used at Temple Beth Sholom and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Besides the traditional readings, it included writings by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker and the Rev. Martin Luther King, among others.

Around the room, many joined in the readings and singing of songs such as "Oh Freedom," led by the minister, and "Avadim Hayenu," led by the rabbi. The concluding song was "We Shall Overcome."

Lewis expressed optimism that the seder world set an important precedent in Palo Alto.

"We need to hear each other's stories," he said. "This is a beginning where we can work together in our community to provide help where it is needed."

Added Staples: "We think of this occasion as that of God making a cake. If you eat only one individual ingredient, it doesn't taste very good. God is mixing and creating the bitter and the sweet altogether. That is what we are doing at this seder."