Questions of freedom on table as Israel’s overhaul comes to American Passover Seders


NEW YORK (AP) – Marc Slutsky has led Passover for 40 years, tackling troubling issues including Soviet Jewry, racism in the United States, and war after war after war.

This year, when a slavery-to-freedom story unfolds at his table in Highland Park, Illinois, modern-day Israel will be in the spotlight after hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest against reform. the judgment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The plan, paused after repeated mass demonstrations, sparked the most intense social unrest in Israel in recent years, just ahead of this week’s Passover.

Slutsky, president of the independent synagogue Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living, in Glencoe, reminds his 18 guests of the Seder changes as they sit down for ritual readings, blessings and discussion.

One big change will come at the end, he said, when “Next year in Jerusalem” is traditionally recited.

“We are going to read from Israel’s Declaration of Independence,” said the 76-year-old Slutsky, specifically a passage that promises “full equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants.”

A protester carries a sign with a picture of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the slogan ‘Hague sameach,’ and the international court of justice, during a rally against the government’s judicial reform in Tel Aviv on April 1, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

The plan proposed by Netanyahu would give him and his allies — the most right-wing government in the nation’s history — more control over the judiciary. Critics say it would concentrate power in his hands and destroy a system of checks and balances. They also say he has a conflict of interest since he himself is facing trial on corruption charges.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Vacation Days, One Amazing Jew,” is watching Israel closely. She will host 30 people at her Seder in New York.

“It feels impossible to ignore this difficult and deflationary inflection point for Israel right now,” she said.

Traditional Seder symbols will take on new weight, Pogrebin said.

“The bitter herb, which reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, will remind us how bitter this government is – against non-Orthodox Jews, LGBTQ Jews, against Arabs, against women in the military. It will remind us of the bitterness of dictatorship and intolerance, and the recall of our dearest dictators,” she said.

The breaking of the matzah marked “the current breakdown of Israeli democracy — or how close it has come to a breaking point,” Pogrebin said.

And when a door is opened for Elijah, when Jews symbolically welcome the messianic era of justice and righteousness, “he will demand that we think of each one of us at our table on how we will work to achieve justice.”

Passover, March 27, 2021. (Yahav Gamliel/Flash90)

A large percentage of US Jews observe Passover, a holiday that commemorates the biblical flight of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and emphasizes the importance of passing that story of freedom on to children at the Seder table.

North America has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.

“The Seder is a great time for me to engage in conversation on many topics related to unfinished projects or places of strife or turmoil,” said Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver in Canada, its service, fundraising and relief organization.

It will also host 30 people for a Seder, including non-Jews and guests with different political and religious views.

Shanken will put down a second Seder plate to go with the one that has traditional symbols of the Passover story. The second plate will include a block of ice left to melt as a reminder of climate action. But it is the story of Passover itself and the founding of Israel 75 years ago that will establish the conversation about current Israeli politics.

“Our story has never been without turmoil. It was never without confrontation. It was never without disagreement,” Shanken said.

A family seen during Passover in Tzur Hadassah, April 8, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Rabbi Jill Jacobs also expects an in-depth discussion about the protests and Netanyahu’s governing coalition. She is the CEO of T’ruah, a US-based non-profit ramifications collective focused on human rights in North America, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

“It is important for Jews to talk about what it means to fight for democracy in the Jewish state, for the Jews and for the non-Jews who also live there,” she said.

Rabbi Mike Uram, chief Jewish learning officer for the Jewish Federations of North America, expects the Netanyahu government to be one of a range of issues discussed at Seder tables around the themes of slavery, democracy and freedom.

Among them are “the consumption and risks of global warming,” as well as the “lack of equity in American life, and the ways in which Black people have to fear structural racism and violence from the police force, as a form of slavery.” that people must be freed from it,” he said.

Police deploy water cannons on people on the Ayalon Highway to protest government plans to reform the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Saturday, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Jonathan D. Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, sees progress in the Haggadah, the text that Jews use in many versions during the Seder, for an open discussion of Israel.

“There are many moments where you can really jump from the traditional liturgy and ask important questions. And that’s really what Passover is supposed to be about,” he said. “It’s not about debate. It’s about asking and framing questions. I think it’s really possible to have a productive discussion.”

Productivity is key.

During the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States, some families were torn apart along the red-blue divide. That continues to play out during holidays when people gather, and also includes friction over pandemic-related issues, such as vaccines and masks.

For some American Jews, this is different and the same in major ways.

“There’s definitely a mix of opinions in my family about politics, and especially Israeli politics,” said Talia Benamy, 36, in Brooklyn. “But I think there’s a broad consensus: Everyone in my family agrees that this legislative push is bad news.”

US protesters gather against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reform in New York City, March 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

When Benamy joined protests in New York in solidarity with demonstrators in Israel, her 64-year-old mother, her brother and her three children, the oldest age 7, accompanied her. He participated well before Easter.

“One of the main lines in the Haggadah is the idea that it is our duty in every generation to see ourselves in the Passover story,” she said. “The way we can do that now is to have conversations about what freedom really means, how it is represented, and for whom?”

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