As we celebrate one of our most significant holidays, I can’t remember another Passover season when freedom, liberty, sovereignty and compassion for our fellow men/women of all religions and cultures should be recognized and granted freedom from the chains of tyranny and bondage.
It is difficult to use those appalling words in 2017 when we live in the most modern times of our world and yet there are still those who suffer prejudice perpetrated by others. It’s the others who create a world of unrest, fear, instability, strife, fighting, disorder and the nouns could go on and on.
This is why our reading of the Haggadah, retelling the story and spreading the words and deeds of our forefathers, is so important this year. Our Seder is a perfect time to invite non-Jewish families and friends to hear the plight of our people, along with speaking of those who suffer in today’s world. Around our bountiful table we can share how hard we fought for the land of Israel, our traditions and rituals that make us proud to be Jews while having a teaching moment that can influence the perspective of some people who aren’t familiar with the hardships Jews have endured.
For many years, my family has invited non-Jews to our Seder table who were excited to feast and partake in this beautiful festival of renewal. So many comments by the end of the evening have been, “I never knew what Passover really meant other than you couldn’t eat bread!”
I am especially moved this Passover because of several events that have touched me and my family in the past month, one in particular that was a kvelling moment where as a grandmother I stood next to my granddaughter while the Torah was passed from generation to generation at her Bat Mitzvah. She made her parents, me and all our family proud as she chanted and shared how her many years at religious school taught her where she came from, what she needs to pass on to the next generation and how she can stand tall as a proud Jew. One of her greatest gifts, she told us all from the Bema, was, “My appreciation for all the Jewish friends I have made at Temple and at camp. I know these people will be part of my life for a very long time because we have shared so many fun and inspiring activities together.”
And then two weeks after her Bat Mitzvah weekend she was startled into reality when in her science class, where the teacher sat her at a table with five boys, she was shocked with the bullying from two of the boys who had targeted her and another boy for the past many months. Just a few days after her Bat Mitzvah, she watched the two boys draw swastikas in the notebook of the other targeted boy. At that moment she said and did nothing, out of fear. When she got home from school she told her mom and the next morning my daughter and granddaughter went to the principal and relayed the incident.
Immediately, the two boys were suspended from school. My granddaughter experienced praises from school officials and her peers for her bravery to come forward and knowing the right thing to do. She let us know that her religious upbringing enlightened her with the right thing to do. The two sets of parents were horrified at the acts of their sons. One boy sent my granddaughter and the boy whose notebook he wrote in a personal letter of apology asking for their forgiveness. The other family sent an email of apology saying they believed their son had no idea what the swastikas meant. The mother explained that she took the time her son was at home to educate him about the Holocaust and all its ramifications. Every day he had a learning moment about racism, including watching Shindler’s List, and all the horrors victims of persecution have endured.
How nice would it be to head off any acts of hate and ignorance by inviting a non-Jewish family to your Seder table for a teaching moment?
On a very cold March morning in Northern California a few weeks ago, my brother went to his local JCC for his daily in-door swimming exercise. While doing laps he saw from the corner of his eye people getting out of the pool and bundling together and hurrying towards the exit. He lifted his head out of the water and heard “EVACUATE! EVACUATE!” He followed the crowd out into the 50 degree cold with no towel, shoes, clothes, cell phone or car keys. For warmth, the swimmers huddled together until blankets were brought as they watched the police enter the building. A bomb threat. Nothing was found. One of many threats made to JCCs across the world. And how pained are we as a world-wide community to learn that one of our own allegedly was the perpetrator of all those calls. We thank G-d that no one was hurt.
I recently moved to a 55+ community with rolling hills, spring flowers in bloom and so many clubs and activities to keep the 10,000 residents busy and happy (10% Jewish population). All the Jewish organizations are represented with monthly meetings on the premises along with a synagogue that holds Shabbat services and Torah study every week.
Several weeks ago a Jewish couple came home to find swastikas painted at their front entry. Shock waves have rattled this community and suddenly out of the woodwork, people are sending in letters to the weekly newspaper sharing other stories of religious acts of hate, not just towards Jews. This community is suddenly awoken to the fact that maybe it’s not sheltered from beyond the entrance gates while worrying if their own neighbors are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Now my son warns me not to jump to conclusions but when I came home from work the other day to find something gone from my front porch, my nerve endings went on high alert. The item has little monetary value and was something decorative surrounded by potted plants of spring flowers to enhance my outside entryway. I immediately called the security people to report a theft. When they arrived I described the stolen article and explained I couldn’t imagine who would want it because it was nothing more than a picture frame that I glued colorful mosaic tiles on with the numbers of my condo. “Why would someone take a red frame with pink, red, purple and green tiles with 3B on it that only was relevant to my address?” I asked. The young man shrugged as he wrote up the report.
Then I changed my tone and said to the security guy, “Except, I have a mezuzah on my doorpost and a sign above my door that says SHALOM, which is a Hebrew word!” His confused eyes told me he did not know what a mezuzah was and had no clue of the significance or meaning of shalom and he definitely had not connected the dots.
I continued, “My concern here is that with the violation on the Jewish family’s entry with the painted swastikas several weeks ago, could this be another act of anti-Semitism?” I saw that my question was beyond the scope of this African American young man as he told me he would make a report and was sorry for the inconvenience. I do believe he was sorry that he could not do more nor had any answers. End of story.
Of course, as I open my front door every morning, I hope to see my colorful 3B but I am not surprised that it has not been returned.
A few days before the Bat Mitzvah, a dear friend of 40 years came in town early so we could spend some time together. My friend had remarried after a divorce and over the years I had noticed my once very liberal minded pal had a change of views and often the words that came out of her mouth sounded like thoughts that came in her ears from her new husband. We were having a lovely dinner upon her arrival and I was telling her about the incident with my brother at the JCC.
With a very surprised face she exclaimed, “I just can’t understand why all of a sudden there is so much anti-Semitism! Where can it be coming from?”
I knew our political opinions were night and day and usually I avoided conversations with her about the newly elected president, but the jolt I felt with her question only heightened my sense of Judaism, and rage overtook me because of the direction our country was going because of this man. I leaned in very close to her and said, “When there is a man in the White House who condones the equality of disabled people, Mexicans, Muslims, woman, etc, he paves a path for others to lash out as the new normal. He is giving permission to act on the hatred towards others! And as Jews we MUST not let this happen! As Jews we have to stand up for what other Jews have suffered, Jews who were our family members! We cannot let this happen in this country or anywhere else!”
Her response shook me to the core when she said, “I’ve never heard him talk badly about Mexicans or Muslims.”
I had to control myself when I responded with, “Don’t you read or watch the news?” She said, “Yes,” as I excused myself to go to the lady’s room.
I know better than to ever again have a newsworthy conversation with her. I love my very generous friend who has always shared the good times and the very rough times with me. I will just have to keep my mouth shut and accept her for her qualities that have kept us close friends for so many years.
These events of the past few weeks have been overwhelming in their various forms and have alerted me to how very important this Passover season is. I will find a way to incorporate them in our family Seder so as to teach my four grandchildren that what we read in our Haggadah is not only from the past but continues to touch our now. Because, “We can never forget” and it is only through awareness, education, acts and deeds that we keep all mankind free.
May your Passover table be filled with those you love and care about and may your Seder enlighten all of us. Amen.