It was like any other seder — matzoh, wine, songs and a feast. But there was one big difference: of the 11 of us sitting around the table, only four were Jewish. It was the United Nations of religion, with Christianity, Hinduism and even atheism represented.
Our interfaith Passover seder did not occur without hitches. The majority of us could barely stutter along while our leader read Hebrew, and the seder took significantly longer than it would have otherwise because our leader was forced to stop and explain each ritual, symbol and lyric. But aside from these hiccups, an observer would have been unable to distinguish Jew from non-Jew at our table in the sense that we were all eager to discuss, for example, why the wicked child is characterized as such for questioning the meaning of his religion.
Attending the seder was an invaluable experience that I hope other non-Jews have. Participation in another religion’s rituals will teach you more about that religion than a book can. And participation is a way of showing respect for other backgrounds. Given the intolerance of fringe groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, more respect for and understanding of other cultures may be just what society needs.
What I learned from the seder was, first and foremost, how important it is for practitioners of different religions to be curious about each other. As a Catholic observing my first Passover seder, I found myself wondering why this was my first time participating in this ritual.
Luckily, compared to other Penn students, I seem to be behind the times. As I learned from Wharton sophomore and Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters member Evan Schoenbach, J-Bagel — the Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization — and Queer People of Color hosted its third annual Freedom Seder this year in which many of the attendees were non-Jewish.
Non-Jewish students who wonder how a seder could possibly involve them will find the ritual more relevant than they might have expected. One of the seder’s lasting lessons is that everyone can connect with its focus on struggle and liberation. “Many Jewish people view seders not as a religious thing but as a cultural thing,” Schoenbach said. “Instead of focusing on Exodus from Egypt, they focus on liberation of a different sort.”
As Jason Goodman, a junior in the College and the chairman of J-Bagel, put it, the Freedom Seder sheds light on “not only oppression from race, religion, and class … but also sexuality and gender.”
This universality of seders has been put into practice by a number of groups in recent years. In 2006, the Anti-Defamation League — an organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry — sponsored nationwide seders, bringing together “communities of differing faiths and ethnic backgrounds with Jews to learn about and celebrate the universal values and themes in the story of Passover,” according to its website. And last year, President Barack Obama, who is a Christian, held the first presidential seder. As is the case for many Jewish families, the presidential seders change in meaning with the times — in 2008 during his campaign, “Next year in Jerusalem” was changed to “Next year in the White House!”
The effects of interfaith interaction apply beyond religion. Interfaith seders combat what Schoenbach describes as the tendency for “many people [at Penn] who are involved in religious communities [to] generally have the vast majority of their social groups made of people from their religion.” Interfaith exchanges allow participants to “appreciate the other religion for its uniqueness and your religion for its uniqueness as well … and these interactions could lead to stronger friendships,” Schoenbach added.
Of course, attending a seder isn’t the only interfaith activity students should engage in. Limiting yourself to seders excludes experiencing the practices of a large number of other religions.
But that doesn’t stop me from looking forward to my next seder. I can’t wait to show off how much better my Hebrew will be.
Cyndi Chung is a College senior from Toms River, N.J. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Slip Of The Chung appears on alternate Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
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