The services and readings at Monday’s interfaith seder at City College were laden with symbolism and meaning. But for 16-year-old Nicholas Jones, there was nothing more metaphoric than the matzah on his plate.
"We are all eating the same flat bread," said Jones, a student at the Manhattan Center for Mathematics and Science in Harlem. "No matter what color we are or what race. It shows that if we all joined together, the world would be a better place."
The seder, attended by 800 people, mostly youth, was part of the Anti-Defamation League’s Harlem Initiative program intended to build bridges of understanding between Jews and the city’s largest African-American community. The program was born in the wake of last year’s Million Youth March, which featured a cavalcade of anti-Semitic speakers, and was conceived by ADL national director Abraham Foxman and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
"We were determined that the last word that people heard would not be the very hateful rhetoric that came out of [the Million Youth March]," said Fields. "We vowed to work together, and I hope this is the beginning of a journey."
The Harlem Initiative organized a fact-finding tour of the neighborhood by ADL representatives last December, and plans to run focus groups, youth projects and community-based programming.
At the seder, participants from such diverse groups as the Israeli Scouts, the National Federation of Temple Youth, Alianza Dominicana and the Boys Choir of Harlem gathered in the cavernous Great Hall of the City College. Presiding were Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of the Upper West Side and Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
In universalizing the Passover story, Rabbi Matalon called for a broader understanding of Egypt beyond the ancient society that enslaved Jews. "We refer to Egypt not as that place in North Africa, but that place within ourselves and our societies, wherever we are, that keeps us chained, not able to grow and mature and be free to express ourselves as God wishes for us.
"The Passover seder is not just the experience of the Jewish people but the experience of every people."
Rabbi Matalon and Rev. Butts alternatively read from "A Common Road to Freedom," the special Hagaddah compiled by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which emphasizes the commonality of the black and Jewish experiences. It includes readings from songwriter Bob Dylan, poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, freedom fighter Hannah Senesh and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In response to one of the four questions, the gathering recited the answer: "On all other nights we eat alone in our own communities, in our own homes, while tonight we have crossed boundaries to eat with one another. … On all other nights we recite our personal histories, while tonight we are listening to each other’s stories."
Musical performances by the Israeli Chutzpah Band and the Harlem Boys Choir included "Oh Freedom," and Dylan’s "Blowin’ In The Wind," as well as traditional Haggadah songs including, "Dayeinu" and "Eliyahu Hanavi."
"This really opens the heart and mind to new things," said Mark Mayfield, 15, a member of the Boys Choir of Harlem.
David Lieberman, a student at the Solomon Schechter School in Manhattan, said he believed the program would transform each participant into an emissary.
"I think when we come into these rooms we understand more about each other and we can bring that out to the rest of the world," said Lieberman, 15, an Upper West Side resident. "I don’t know if it makes a direct difference all the time, but it spreads."
Rev. Butts said in an interview that such programs serve the purpose of forging ties between community leaders and youth, even if they cannot eliminate prejudices on both sides.
"In many ways as we go through this service we see that we’re in similar boats," said Rev. Butts. "The Jewish community understands that while it has enjoyed some success particularly in New York and United States, that success is no guarantee against bigotry and hatred. The same is true with African Americans. This is bringing us closer together. We’re not afraid to touch each other and talk."