Metroplex leaders participate in 5th annual Interfaith Seder
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — The story of the Exodus from Egypt is at the heart of the Jewish experience. But as the Jewish Community Relations Council sees it, the messages of Passover are relevant to people of all faiths, and to the issues they face today. The success of its annual interfaith Seder demonstrates the point.
“It’s an opportunity for communities outside the Jewish community to experience something based on a Passover Seder,” said Anita Zusman Eddy, the JCRC’s executive director. “The story of the Exodus lends itself to using a program reflected in our current times.”
About 400 people gathered at Temple Emanu-El on March 30 for the fifth annual JCRC Interfaith Seder, which had a theme of Uniting Our Community. It was led by Emanu-El’s Rabbi Debra Robbins and Grace Presbytery’s Rev. Dr. Janet DeVries. Emanu-El’s Cantor Vicky Glikin led blessings and songs.
“People just really respond. It has gotten bigger and better every year,” Zusman Eddy said.
“The diversity of the crowd was remarkable, the diversity of faiths, communities, ethnicities. It’s become an event where people look forward to it, Jewish and non-Jewish. They immediately say, ‘When’s the next one? I want to come.’ ”
This year’s featured speaker was the Rev. Dr. Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in South Dallas, who has worked on the issues of domestic violence and poverty. The event lineup also included a welcome from JCRC Chair Melanie Rubin, introductions from Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas Board Chair Dan Prescott and JCRC Immediate Past Chair A.J. Rosmarin, and remarks from Texas Rep. Jason Villalba.
Throughout the course of the evening, the theme was pervasive in the readings and remarks.
“We work the traditional Haggadah and Passover service to reflect a social action theme relevant to today’s environment,” Zusman Eddy said.
After breaking the middle matzo, attendees read together “Our ability to bridge this divide is only accomplished by welcoming one another.”
A quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a notable civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, was used during the Four Questions to respond to “the indifferent child”:
“The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
At the point in which wine is removed from the cup to mark each plague, causes of division in the community were cited, such as religious discrimination, racism and political affiliation.
The reading with the third cup of wine included scriptural citations from Judaism, Christianity and Islam about helping the stranger.
Rabbi Robbins called the Seder “a call to action, to be ready to participate in the drama of our time.”
During his remarks, Haynes offered his own version of Psalm 133:1, “Behold how good it is for us to sow concord and discuss discord.”
He shared a story about groups of quail who did not work together until they were all captured. They then discovered that by flapping their wings together, they could lift the net and escape.
“When we flap together, we shall overcome,” Haynes said, warning against not only indifference, but lack of positive action.
He described how even in a land of plenty, we make our own hell if we do not actively help each other.
“Make Dallas a heaven on earth, not just for the up and in, but the down and out,” Haynes said.
Bringing in Haynes was a major step, Zusman Eddy said, because although he has a wide reach — 12,000 church members, and a long history of radio programs — he remains unfamiliar to many from North Dallas. And the reverse is true, too.
“I’m sure some of his congregants have never been in a synagogue, and that’s the purpose, to reach out to the non-Jewish community and put them in touch with the Jewish religion and values,” Zusman Eddy said. “We make them feel welcome and show them the values of the Jewish community, and there’s a lot to connect on. That’s the purpose of the JCRC, to build alliances with people outside the Jewish community.”
One of the key alliances is with Rev. DeVries.
“On the national level, the Presbyterians have adopted some anti-Israel resolutions, so we thought it was important to develop a local outreach,” Zusman Eddy said.
The approach worked, and a cordial relationship resulted. DeVries went to the JCRC Seder in 2015, and was very impressed. She offered to lead the next one, and took part in the planning with Rabbi David Stern.
“The presbyter happens to be a very warm, smart person,” Zusman Eddy said. “She committed that any Presbyterian that wanted to attend the Seder, the presbytery would underwrite the cost.”
As a result, 125 of them came last year, and many returned for 2017 under the same arrangement.
Getting there was a little more difficult for Villalba, who rearranged his schedule and drove up from Austin just in time for the event. He spoke about embracing those who are different from ourselves. While most of his statements drew applause, it was loudest when he mentioned his vote against the “bathroom bill.”
A number of other political figures or their representatives were on hand, as well as faith leaders from across the Metroplex. There were 22 individuals honored with a Seder reading, from bishops and rabbis to a member of Sen. Ted Cruz’ staff.
“Having so many good people from different backgrounds coming together to break matzo is so wonderful,” Prescott said.
The first interfaith Seder had the theme of hunger, and drew 80 people. Two years later, Zusman Eddy decided to make it an annual occurrence. Now seen as a signature Federation event, the JCRC Seder is held at a different congregation each year, with themes such as civil rights, confronting poverty and welcoming the stranger.
The theme doesn’t end with the Seder. There was considerable networking at the event between faith communities and activists, and DeVries immediately sent an email out to talk about the next steps to take.
As festivities concluded, a number of attendees spent time introducing themselves to others and catching up with old friends. Among those who left with a smile was Senior Imam Abdar-Rahman Hatim of the Islamic Association of DeSoto, Texas. He attended last year’s event, his first Seder. He said it was easier to follow this time, and that the theme is “very current.”
“The premise is just beautiful to me, the way religion should be,” Hatim said. “I think we can do more to conquer the hate and prejudice.”
Hatim’s congregation is one of four Islamic centers in its area that made the trek northward. He said they have been involved in interfaith efforts for 40 years, and noted it was important for the Abrahamic faiths to come together, with an inclusive Seder being one of the most appropriate ways to do it.
Zusman Eddy and JCRC assistant Kim Kort helped oversee the event, and the Seder was planned by a committee chaired by Marlene Cohen, made up of Robbins, DeVries, Joan Cera, Jacque Comroe, Debbie Dauber, Illise Kohleriter, Talia Kushnick, Mika Manaster, Wendy Palmer, Jody Pearson, Ali Rhodes, Amy Roseman, Joyce Rosenfield, Evan Stone, Rosie Stromberg, Katie Venetsky and Beth Zucker.