Unity in the Community
I originally heard about the Madison Freedom Seder last year, having just joined the African American/Jewish Friendship Group at Jerry (Gerald) and Merle Sternberg’s gracious invitation. This group was formed by the Sternbergs in 1990 with the goal of improving race relations in Dane County through personal connections. It disbanded when the Sternbergs moved away from Madison from 2002-2017 but reconvened on their return in 2017, added new members, and shifted its focus from primarily social gatherings to project-oriented social action. Membership in the group has been fluid, but many of the original 35 members are still active.
The African American Jewish Friendship Group has now sponsored three Freedom Seders in 2019, 2022, and 2023-with a break during the COVID pandemic.
Madison’s first Freedom Seder was held in 2019 at the suggestion of Shahanna McKinney-Baldon and was led by Shahannah and Jerry Sternberg with JP Olson offering her gorgeous musical talents. An anonymous donor contributed substantially to the cost of the event and has continued to do so each year.
This year’s event was hosted by Temple Beth El and served over 80 guests.
Freedom Seders have been held in diverse locations around the country and have been modeled after the very first Freedom Seder in 1969. During Passover of that year on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, 800 people gathered in the basement of a Black church in Washington, D.C. to remember King and connect the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt with the struggle for civil rights in America and social justice around the world.
My experience with this year’s Freedom Seder started months before the actual event. I worked on a planning committee of wonderful, generous and dedicated people with Merle as our tremendously organized and welcoming leader. I became better acquainted with some of the African American members while preparing for the Seder. I especially enjoyed peeling sweet potatoes in the kitchen of Jewelline and Willie Wiggins’ stunning, sunlight-filled new home while we swapped stories about our families and ancestors and laughed a lot.
So, what were some of the highlights of this year’s recent Freedom Seder? First of all, Temple Beth El generously donated the Temple Social Hall for the event, and Rabbi Biatch and Executive Director Stephanie Kushner along with the staff at TBE extended a warm welcome and were incredibly helpful in making this Freedom Seder so successful. Joyce Boggess made sure the room and tables were festive and inviting, providing lovely, colorful linens and floral arrangements for each table.
Meaningful passages from this year’s Haggadah were read aloud by guests. One reminded us that “the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. And where is Mitzrayim?…The name, Mitzrayim, has in it the Hebrew word for narrow, constrained, or inhibited. So Mitzrayim can also be the narrow place that squeezes the life out of the human soul and body. For some of us Mitzrayim is American Slavery. For some of us, it is Nazi Germany…For all of us, it is the continuing racial disparities in Dane County in employment, housing, education, health and health care, home ownership, rates of incarceration and others…. So, we are here together to work to break out of the narrow places and the sunken places.
Bill Greer penned a powerful piece entitled “Lest We Forget” for this year’s Haggadah. It started, “The native American poet and activist, Paula Gunn Allen said, “The root of oppression is the loss of memory.” That is why we must be vigilant observers of the past and absorbers of the lessons it teaches. The Freedom Seder combines the liberation stories of the Jewish and African American people. Both groups won freedom from slavery and oppression through faith, fortitude and solidarity,”
Our Haggadah also paired the traditionally cited plagues with modern plagues, such as our broken health care and criminal justice systems, the lack of affordable housing, gun violence, climate change, hunger, educational disparities, and economic inequality.
Rabbi Biatch and JP Olson led this year’s Seder (as they did last year). They provided a spiritually joyous, meaningful, and seamlessly collaborative experience for us all-with JP lending her beautiful voice, singing African American spirituals and traditional Passover music and ending the evening by leading everyone in a rousing rendition of, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Later in the Seder, JP Olson also led us in singing Miriam’s song, a familiar inclusion for Jewish participants. We were also privileged to have Gerri Gurman perform Miriam’s Dance as it was created for the Parliament of World Religions with the Call for Peace Drum and Dance Company in 1993.
Last, but not least, the meal which was purchased and prepared by many of the participants was superb! It blended elements of both African American and traditional Passover foods including matzoh ball soup, Manischewitz sweet wine, fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, candied yams, and sweet potato pie…and, of course, a dazzling array of delicious desserts.
Feedback about the event was unqualifiedly positive and as Jerry and Merle remarked in our conversation in preparation for this article, “The Freedom Seder continues to be an important event for our community to come together and build bridges to engender positive race relations.”