Although Passover is still more than two weeks off, the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History is inviting anyone — whether observant, lapsed, or not Jewish at all — to join its 10th annual Freedom Seder on Monday evening.
Called “Freedom Seder Revisited,” the event will feature musicians, comedians, and religious leaders both Jewish and Christian to celebrate notions of liberation over a symbolic dinner. It will be the first in-person Seder at the Weitzman since the pandemic.
It’s not a regular Seder, according to Dan Samuels, director of public programs at the Weitzman.
“This is not your Bubbe’s Seder,” he said. “Instead of the retelling of the Exodus story, there are personal stories on the themes of Passover, from the narrow to the expansive, from oppression to freedom, welcoming the stranger, passing down traditions generation to generation.”
The Freedom Seder was first conceived in 1969 by Arthur Waskow, who at the time was a civil rights activist and political academic fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank. He was deeply shaken by the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., a year earlier.
Although raised Jewish, Waskow was not particularly observant until he connected the Passover story of Jewish liberation from Egypt with the contemporary struggle for civil rights.
“In all of Jewish history there had been different versions of the Seder focused around some element of Jewish liberation, but nobody had ever written a Seder that talked about the liberation of anybody else,” he said in his Mt. Airy home.
Waskow wrote a Seder about Black liberation, and staged the first Freedom Seder as an open event for all faiths and all races. About 800 people showed up.
That first Freedom Seder made Waskow consider more seriously his Jewish faith. It took many years, but finally in 1995 he became ordained as a rabbi. He founded the Jewish social activist organization The Shalom Center, which he still directs at age 89.
The Freedom Seder is an idea that has been picked up by Jewish communities far and wide. The Weitzman (then called simply the National Museum of American Jewish History) responded to a prompt from the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts that asked: if you could travel to any time in history, where would you go? The museum answered: the first Freedom Seder. Thus the Freedom Seder Revisited was born.
This year a roster of speakers have been invited to speak of their own experience with personal liberation, including Elaine Holton, whose experience with riot police in West Philadelphia during the summer of 2020 after George Floyd was killed pushed her to found Phonk!, a festival of brass music in FDR Park. It will also feature comedian Geoff Jackson describing how his family would celebrate Christmas in secret while growing up in Saudi Arabia.
The lineup also includes Pauli Reese, podcaster of the “(un)common good,” comic Betty Smithsonian, Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler of Mother Bethel AME church, musician Aly Halpert, Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian, Congregation Mikveh Israel, and Mexican folk musician Ximena Violante.
Samuels says the Freedom Seder is not meant to replace a traditional Passover Seder. That is why it does not happen during Passover. Instead, he found a date that he hoped would not conflict with a busy season, squeezing between Ramadan, St. Patrick’s Day, Purim, and Passover.
The Weitzman Museum will not be staging any events at the beginning of Passover, so museum staff can celebrate the high holiday with their families.
Rabbi Waskow has given a speech at every museum Seder since the Weitzman started hosting it. He used to attend to more Freedom Seders, but said, at 89 years old, “I don’t hop on an airplane as easily as I used to.”
He makes sure the Freedom Seder is true to its roots, tying Judaic teaching directly to activism. He has spoken about Jewish law and climate change, for example, and this year will talk about reparations.
“I started looking about a month ago at what you might call the economics of Exodus,” he said.
Waskow explains that the biblical Pharaoh had stripped Israelite farmers of land ownership, forcing them to become sharecroppers. After many years they had become increasingly oppressed and enslaved.
“God tells Moses to tell the people to go to the Egyptian households and ask for gold, silver and clothing to pay for their unpaid labor for a couple hundred years. And the Egyptians do it,” Waskow said. “We would now call that reparations for slavery. The main thing I wanted to do at the museum is to call people’s attention to that.”
Samuels says that the Freedom Seder is more about activism, then religion.
“I can guarantee you that anybody who is in the room when Rabbi Arthur Waskow gets the microphone will pick up on that activism,” he said. “And will be inspired by that activism.”