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The Freedom Seder: The anti-racism dinner party that changed American Judaism

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The day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Arthur Waskow defined himself many ways. Civil rights activist. Antiwar demonstrator. Historian. Writer.

An identity he did not put front and center: Jew.

Then, on April 4, 1968, King was killed — and the next day, riots broke out in Washington. Waskow and fellow white activists deeply immersed in the struggle for civil rights in the District spent the rest of the week huddled in a makeshift command center, trying to ferry supplies to black communities under curfew as the National Guard took over the streets of the city.

Eight days after the assassination, the Jewish holiday of Passover began. Waskow trudged wearily back to his home in Adams Morgan for the Passover Seder. As he passed a military vehicle, with its machine gun pointed outward, he had something of a religious experience.

“My guts began to say: ‘This is Pharaoh’s army,'” he recalls. “The Seder became not just serious — it became explosive, like a volcano. Like discovering a volcano you didn’t even know existed in your own backyard. … Something blew up. Wham.”

Waskow’s sudden awakening of Jewish consciousness was the spark that would change the Passover tradition for much of American Jewry.

The next year, he wrote his own haggadah — a religious text for the Passover Seder — that incorporated modern-day injustices into the age-old ritual.

If that seems like an obvious aspect of the Seder to you now, well, that’s because you’ve been going to seders since the “Freedom Seder.”

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More than 800 people — black and white, Jewish and Christian — joined in a cross-racial gathering in a Washington church, which used Waskow’s haggadah and would transform the American Seder.

This year, on the 50th anniversary of King’s death, the pivotal haggadah is getting its due accolades. The Center for Jewish History in New York and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia hosted events in the past week, where historians extolled the influence of the Freedom Seder.

The huge crowd in 1969 sat at long tables in front of candles and matzah. They read from Waskow’s book, which invoked nuclear disarmament and police brutality as modern problems in need of solutions alongside the traditional “Dayenu” recitation of ancient problems that God solved, and listed King and Gandhi as “prophets” alongside Elijah. The worshipers raised their wine glasses and proclaimed not “L’chaim” but “Liberation now!” and sang a hymn common to black Christians and to Jews: “Go Down, Moses.”

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The service was broadcast live by a New York radio station, and filmed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Jewish publications across the country wrote articles about it. Hundreds of people bought Waskow’s haggadah to use at their own family seders the following year; many families have used it ever since.

Michael Tabor, a leader of the activist group Jews for Urban Justice that distributed the haggadah across the country in 1970 and after, recalled: “At these seders using the new haggadah, people would get into fistfights. They wrote me, ‘My uncle got up and slapped his nephew, and he got up and slammed him, over him referring to Eldridge Cleaver as a shofet,’” or comparing the Black Panther Party leader to a biblical judge, as the new haggadah did.

But Waskow’s concept spread. There have been countless interpretations of the haggadah: feminist seders, vegetarian seders, refugee seders, LGBT seders.

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Jewish and black communities will come together for Freedom Seders once more this week in several cities, including a sold-out Washington gathering at Silver Spring United Methodist Church, where a gospel choir and a Muslim choir will sing. Several attendees of the first Freedom Seder will be there, including Jamie Raskin, now a Democratic U.S. congressman representing suburban Maryland, who was just 6 years old when he attended the original Seder with his father, activist Marcus Raskin.

Topper Carew will be there, at one of the many Freedom Seders he has attended in several cities during the decades since that first.

When Waskow, who Carew got to know when they were both delegates to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, invited him to help lead the 1969 event, Carew had never even heard of a Seder.

“It was an event to talk about the parallel histories and commonalities that the Jewish community and the black community had in their respective struggles. That made sense to me,” said Carew, who was active in the District’s black progressive community at the time. “It made me more aware of the common history, the parallel histories. It was something I didn’t know and didn’t think about until that occasion.”

Since then, Carew — who went on to become one of the creators of the TV sitcom “Martin” — has come to think of the Jewish Seder as a useful vehicle for passing down history, one that he compares to observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “Conversations about the history of struggle need to be reignited. I think there has been a real dropping of the ball when it comes to a more thorough understanding of where we come from historically. Young people in particular need to know that,” Carew said. “We need as many markers and as many occasions as we can, to celebrate the history of our struggles.”

That’s why he keeps going to seders.

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The Freedom Seder aimed to improve strained relations between black and Jewish communities. Tabor, who helped organize the original Seder and the coming Silver Spring commemoration, saw plenty of cause for black Washingtonians’ mistrust of Jews.

He recalls that Jews were formally and informally restricted from many professions, since certain law firms, hospitals and businesses wouldn’t hire Jews in the 1940s and ’50s. As a result, a disproportionate number of Jews went into real estate and became the landlords who owned segregated properties, which were often poorly maintained. Throughout the late 1960s, Jews for Urban Justice confronted those landlords and other Jewish business owners, and sometimes picketed their businesses and staged other dramatic protests when conversations failed to persuade them.

“It was such a contradiction. How could Jews, so soon [after the Holocaust], be involved in being racist?” he asked this week, choking up as he recalled those years of activism in an interview for an oral history project for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. “We tried to make people aware of the contradictions in what they were doing and make them ashamed of it.”

Half a century later, the black and Jewish communities in Washington are locked in another round of that seemingly endless friction, sparked this time by D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr.’s recent espousal of a conspiracy theory about the Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds. Again, the Freedom Seder comes at a time when the two communities are trying to understand one another and unite for a common purpose.

For Waskow, the Freedom Seder was the first step on a path to far deeper Jewish involvement. After the haggadah, he wrote several books about Judaism. In 1995, he was ordained as a rabbi.

“The Freedom Seder liberated the haggadah. … The Freedom Seder was the first Seder that opened the framework beyond the Jewish experience to include multiple experiences, especially the black community’s struggle against American racism,” he said. After that came a flood of interpretive seders that brought the ancient ritual into perpetual relevance in American homes and communities.

Waskow likens the enduring tradition that he launched to a chemistry lesson: “If you have a supersaturated solution and you drop a crystal into that solution, the whole solution crystallizes. I was lucky enough to be the one who dropped the crystal into the solution. And, wow, was it ready.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the wrong name for the organization Jews for Urban Justice.

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