The students were talking and laughing, sharing interests and getting to know each other. The room full of 12-13 year olds was buzzing with positive social energy, as is often the case when adolescents gather. You had to look more closely to see that the students were a mix of Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish students who had come together to participate in an Interfaith Seder. On Tuesday, I was privileged to lead the seder for the Schechter Manhattan Middle School students and their peers from the Islamic Cultural Center School and the St. Margaret of Cortona School.
Leading the annual Interfaith Seder, hosted by the Anti-Defamation League, highlighted for me how the seder ritual and liturgy has lessons that are both particular to the Jewish people and also universal for all humanity. And watching the students engage with their Muslim and Catholic peers, it was evident that this experience was reinforcing those lessons for them.
The seder is, of course, a Jewish practice, and sharing it with members of other faith traditions makes that stark. The foods, words, and stories of the seder that are so familiar to us and Jews around the world are foreign and new to the Muslim and Catholic students we shared them with. And the seder has a strong focus on nurturing and strengthening our Jewish identities. We view the story of Exodus as our particular story. We speak about the events described in sefer shmot, the Book of Exodus, in the first person, telling our children:
בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ
בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם
It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt. Not only our ancestors were redeemed by the Holy One, blessed be He, but we were also redeemed with them.
The Exodus story is the Jewish people’s master narrative. Telling it at the seder and making especially sure that the children hear it and learn it is core to how we maintain our cultural, religious, and national identity across generations. The seder also includes clear distinctions between the Jewish people and others.
וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ! שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, אֶלָּא
שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.
And it is this promise that has sustained us, for not just once did somebody try to destroy us for in every generation they have tried to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from them.
These words reflect the reality that relations between Jews and people of other faiths have not always been good or safe, and that part of being Jewish involves protecting and sustaining our particular people.
As the Schechter Manhattan students participating in the Interfaith Seder shared the practices and rituals of Judaism and learned from the other students about the Muslim and Catholic faith traditions, they were reminded of the things that make them uniquely Jewish. The differences between them and others encouraged them to identify with their people’s history and traditions, and through that process, strengthen their Jewish identities.
At the same time, the seder also includes universal messages. The experience of slavery that we remember at the seder is meant to teach us to care for each other and all human beings. Many times throughout the Torah, God commands us to be kind and loving to the strangers…
כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Viewing ourselves as having experienced the Exodus compels us to reach out to others with compassion. And so, at the start of our seder we say…
כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל
Let anyone who is hungry come and eat.
These universalist themes were pointed to by Mohamed Abubakr, who was invited by the ADL to share words and inspiration with us at the Interfaith Seder. Mohamed is originally from Sudan and is the president of the African Middle Eastern Leadership Project, an organization whose mission is to empower and connect young activists and policymakers from Africa, the Middle East, and the US to build societies free from discrimination, persecution & coercion. Mohamed said that Exodus story, the move from slavery to freedom, is a universal story. What the Israelites experienced is also true for refugees fleeing persecution or war, or for kids suffering from bullying or abuse. Mohamed charged us to care for the weakest among us and help them achieve their own “personal Exodus.” He told the students that by finding common ground in their shared humanity, they could change the reality for each other and make the world a better place.
As the Schechter Manhattan students got to know their Muslim and Catholic peers, they found much that they had in common as adolescents growing up in NYC, and they were reminded of their shared humanity. The similarities between them and others encouraged them to interact with people who are different with care and compassion, and through that process, strengthened their skills of empathy and perspective taking.
At Schechter Manhattan, we aspire for our students to build strong Jewish identities, so that they know who they are and what their core values are. And, so that when they interact with others in a diverse world, they will feel sufficiently confident with who they are, and be open-minded and empathetic to people who have different beliefs. At the Interfaith Seder, I could see our students engaging meaningfully to build those skills and dispositions. It made me immensely proud and also hopeful for a better world that the students from all of these schools will bring into being.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop back next week and see what they are writing and thinking about.
We have been looking forward to the season and holiday of Spring (Passover or Pesach). Children in Kitah Aleph wrote about the season of spring in Hebrew and added an illustration to their writing.
Ba’aviv yesh pracheem v’etzeem. Ani ohev et pracheem.
(In spring there are flowers and trees. I like flowers.)
Click here to view work by Abigail
Ba’aviv yesh tziporeem veken ve’etz veparpareem.
(In spring there are birds and nest and tree and butterflies.)
Click here to view work by Katarina
Ba’aviv yesh etzeem vepracheem veperote.
(In spring there are trees and flowers and fruit.)
Click here to view work by Nathan
KITAH GIMMEL/KITAH DALET
The third and fourth grade students have been researching animals that live in the rainforest.
After learning about Newton’s First Law of Motion, 6th grade students created illustrations to remember the different parts of the law