Purim starts tonight, on the full moon, as Jewish holidays of freedom do. So last night (March 22), being nearly the full moon, seemed an appropriate time for the annual Latino-Jewish Seder hosted by the American Jewish Committee and Valle del Sol – even though Passover won’t come till the next full moon.
The organizers seek to find common ground between the Jewish and Latino communities in Arizona by emphasizing Passover’s story of liberation in a way that leads many participants to examine their ethnic identity, that which comes to them through the stories handed down from their parents and grandparents.
This marked the fourth year that the event was held at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix, and the 12th year that the two organizations have provided this “opportunity to engage in a cross-cultural experience” to those in Valle del Sol’s Hispanic Leadership Institute, AJC board members and invited guests. About 80 people attended.
In welcoming remarks, Lawrence Bell, the executive director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society that owns the Cutler-Plotkin, stressed the history of the building, which was Phoenix’s first synagogue and later home to Chinese and Spanish Baptist churches, and observing there could be no better place for Hispanic and Jewish Americans to get together. He said that the seder is one of his favorite events at the center: “I attend every time, just because I like it so much.”
Carlos Galindo-Elvira, chief development officer of Valle del Sol, said that it was an accident that the seder fell this year on the same day as Arizona’s Presidential Preference Election (the proper name of what people know as our state’s presidential primary). “But what is not by accident is the theme … and that’s freedom,” he said. “The fact that there’s so many people standing in lines to vote, to exercise their right, affirms freedom.”
“We are gathered tonight to have a seder, which is the festive meal that celebrates Passover. Passover is the Jewish festival of liberation, based on, drawn from the story of the Exodus in the Torah, the Bible,” said Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel, who led the seder again this year. His fluency with Spanish and Hebrew provided an important link for a group in which the lingua franca was English, accented or not.
Because this was not a Passover seder in the sense of celebrating the Jewish holiday religiously, but rather a social event with a purposeful overlay of producing dialogue and good will between people of different backgrounds, there was a liberating sense that rather than engaging in a ritual, we were engaging in a dialogue. In addition to listening to the story of the escape from Egypt, we were freed to listen to others’ stories of departure and arrival, often of departing a dark circumstance such as poverty or oppression to seek the freedom of America’s shores.
The rabbi prodded this dialogue, pausing our recitation of the Haggadah every so often to ask questions that people answered and discussed at length at their tables.
My wife and I have come to look forward to this celebration each year, precisely because it’s informal and creates unexpectedly deep conversations. At our table, we had a young lady whose parents came from Mexico, a woman whose forebears were from Ukraine, another woman from Guatemala, a man whose father’s family came from Germany and whose mother’s family came from Mexico and a couple whose roots were in Mexico and the American Southwest.
In explaining the central theme of the evening, the rabbi stressed that the events of the Exodus would have occurred about 3,500 years ago, so the experience of Egyptian slavery is something that no living Jew has had. “And yet, nonetheless, to this day, we tell this story, we eat these foods so that we will experience this story because we want to own a share of slavery, not so that we can be downtrodden but so that we can sympathize and empathize with those who are downtrodden … so that the story of oppression will never be someone else’s story, but our own, as well. So that our lot will always side with those who are hurting, enslaved, whose lives have been made bitter. We never want to forget this story. Its fingerprints are always on the Jewish soul.”
Sharing that story in this distinctly American context gives participants a vision of our country as it should be – one where unique individuals and communities don’t assimilate to become American but instead become American by adding the richness of their identity and heritage to a bountiful banquet of possibility and freedom.
– Salvatore Caputo
Two Valley residents – Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz and Marcia Fine – recently presented ELI talks, highly produced 12-minute presentations that “explore central themes of Jewish literacy, religious engagement and identity, presented in light of their presenter’s own work, personal experiences or Jewish or secular texts,” according to elitalks.org. They presented their talks in Chicago in November 2015 and their videos recently became available online.
In “How Far Will You Go to Give? Judaism and Organ Donation,” Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, talks about how his experience volunteering in a small village in Ghana almost 15 years ago led to his recent decision to donate one of his kidneys to a complete stranger.
Author Fine, of Scottsdale, discusses the connections among trauma, Torah and the science of genetics in her ELI talk, “Against the Traumatic Tide: Epigenetics and Positive Jewish Identity.”