“In every generation, a person should look at him or herself as having left Egypt.”
Those are perhaps the most emblematic words of the Haggadah—the text read at the Passover seder each year, urging those in attendance to identify with the slavery experienced by the Jews in ancient Egypt, and, by extension, those still yearning for freedom today.
In fact, Passover is known as the “festival of freedom.”
An annual event in Harrisburg brings those words from the Haggadah to life not only for the Jewish but the wider faith community.
For the past eight years, Beth El Temple and the Interdenominational Ministers Conference have co-sponsored what they call the Freedom Seder. Recently, the seder has grown even more, adding the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches and the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick, said Michael Sand, who chairs the Freedom Seder Committee.
“The Rabbinic Advisory Council of Harrisburg has approved the Freedom Seder each year, and congregants from every synagogue in the area have attended,” Sand said. “Individuals also attend from a wide variety of religious faiths.”
The Freedom Seder developed from a friendship between two clergy people of two different faiths.
About a decade ago, Earl Harris, the now-retired pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Church, approached Rabbi Eric Cytryn, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, and suggested that they consider ways to bring the African American and Jewish communities closer together and to strengthen alliances first forged during the Civil Rights movement.
A few initiatives resulted—including Bible study, visits of high school students to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Freedom Seder.
Although the latter draws upon centuries of Jewish tradition, the Freedom Seder is eclectic. The IMC Citywide Revival Choir will sing freedom songs such as “Go Down Moses” and “We Shall Overcome,” while the students of the Silver Academy, the Jewish day school of Harrisburg, will recite one of the hallmarks of the seder—the “Four Questions,” which begins, “How is this night different from all other nights?”
The event also incorporates contemporary topics, with the Torah, Gospels and Koran serving as foundations.
“Each Freedom Seder has a theme,” said Sand. “This year, it’s ‘Welcoming the Stranger,’ including the immigrant community. Members of the three Abrahamic faiths will share readings from their holy books on the theme.”
Though the Freedom Seder is fairly new in the Harrisburg area, the concept isn’t.
“Since the start of the Civil Rights movement, synagogues and African-American churches have joined together to celebrate the journey from slavery to freedom,” Cytryn said.
Arthur Waskow, a Philadelphia-based rabbi and activist, had put together a little book for such celebrations, gleaning excerpts from the traditional Haggadah. Included were some quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who took part in marches with King.
“We modified the book further,” said Cytryn, keeping the Freedom Seder to about two hours. “Traditionally, it is considered meritorious for Jews to continue discussing the Exodus long into the night.”
The Haggadah at the Freedom Seder “tries to universalize things, such as when we speak of every generation seeing itself as leaving Egypt,” Cytryn said.
Like the traditional seder, the Freedom Seder encompasses a meal, which is kosher. Salmon will be served this year.
Some of the memorable moments of the Freedom Seder over the years were not the formal ones, Cytryn recalled.
“One elderly woman spoke for half an hour about growing up in the Jim Crow South,” he said. “She talked about how people came to this country in chains. Other people attending were crying.”
The seder has morphed into something “much more communal,” he added.
“It’s an opportunity for people sitting together to get to know each other, to introduce themselves and say why they’re there,” he said.
The entire community is invited to attend the Freedom Seder, held on Tuesday, April 9, at 7 p.m., at Beth El Temple, 2637 North Front St., Harrisburg. The cost is $18. Advance registration and payment are required. Send name, address, e-mail address and payment to Beth El at 717-232-0556. For more information about Beth El Temple, visit www.bethelhbg.org.