The Washington Post

Tom Vilsack throws a seder

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack receives an " Omer Counter " piece of artwork, created by Doni Silver Simons, from Jewish Funds for Justice President Simon Greer, left, at the post-Passover Food and Justice Seder at the Department of Agriculture on Wednesday night. (MIKE THEILER)

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.

Elissa Barrett, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (a seder co-sponsor), holds up a poster of a “Food Deserts” seder plate designed for the event. (CORY FISCHER/PROGRESSIVE JEWISH ALLIANCE)

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.

Rabbi Jack Moline listens as Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Los Angeles relates the symbolism of matzoh to modern-day hunger and poverty in America. (MIKE THEILER)

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.

Seder participants during a discussion phase: Rabbi Mordechai Liebling of Philadelphia (left, with yarmulke); Paul Monteiro of the White House's Office of Public Engagement; Anthony Garrett of the Fair Food Network; and Elissa Barrett of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. (MIKE THEILER)

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.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes:


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