The USDA held a seder Wednesday night, but it was neither a day late nor any part of a dollar short on meaning. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and two Jewish outreach organizations used a novel, piggyback-on-Passover approach to spotlight issues related to hunger and justice in America.
Scheduling the event on the heels of the eight-day Jewish holiday with the bounty of symbolic foods didn’t seem like much of a stretch. The evening at the department’s Whitten Building had hardly begun when Vilsack agreed to make it an annual tradition. Before a group of 55 guests, he was presented with artwork that represents the Counting of the Omer -- the 49 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot -- a holiday that honors the giving of the Torah to the Jews freed from slavery in Egypt. It signifies their journey to reconcile freedom and collective obligation. The secretary was obviously moved, and grateful.
And with that, the seder got underway. A succinct haggadah composed for the event summarized the Passover story and provided four major talking points for the tables to consider as they blessed the service’s four cups of wine: hunger and access to healthful food; examples of modern-day slavery (in the form of the Immokalee tomato workers) and others who grow our food; sustainable eating; and committing to action in these matters on a personal basis.
A Passover seder follows a specific ceremony, as it were; on this night, however, the blessing of the matzoh came before the first cup of wine. Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles explained the liberties taken: “Changing the order of this seder is okay, since it’s the ninth day. We have a story . . . and it is profound, reflective of many people’s experiences.” So the group broke the symbolic bread of poverty and affliction as they read and discussed sobering USDA statistics: One in six Americans does not have access to enough food. Some 28 million Americans received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008; 44 million do so today.
Frimmer was one of two officiating; Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim congregation in Alexandria split the duties. With so much ground to cover, the pace of the two-hour seder was brisk. Empire Kosher Poultry of central Pennsylvania sponsored the kosher meal, which consisted of fresh-tasting salads and dips, couscous, organic chicken and an apple dessert. Chief executive officer Greg Rosenbaum was proud to participate: “We support local farmers and workers’ rights. We are the world’s largest producer of kosher chickens and turkeys,” he told me as we waited on the buffet line. Empire also donates 50,000 pounds of poultry to food banks and kitchens each year.
After a little singing, short speeches and responsive reading, strong voices around the room answered the final call to action:
“I will commit to buying products from companies with good ethics.”
“I will support restaurants that treat their workers with respect.”
“I will teach a course on food justice.”
And so on.
The effort came together in about a month’s time, minus some Passover days - a small miracle in the halls of bureacracy. “This was an opportunity to introduce two communities [the USDA and Jewish organizations with a growing interest in food matters] that don’t usually interact,” said Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice.
Between his co-sponsoring group and that of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, conversations were started, bonds were formed and business cards were exchanged among various representatives of federal Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, members from Prayer for the City, Fair Food Network, Jews United for Justice, the Food Trust, Slow Food USA, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice, and others.
At the end of the seder, a door was opened for the spirit of the prophet Elijah , who made it through security without a hitch. Next year, organizers agreed, it will be heartening to see how the evening’s promises are advanced.