NEW YORK -- Marc Slutsky has been leading Passover Seders for 40 years, taking on troubling issues that have included Soviet Jewry, racism in the United States, and war after war after war.
This year, when the slavery-to-freedom story unfolds at his table in Highland Park, Illinois, the Israel of today will be top of mind after tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul.
The plan, on pause after repeated mass demonstrations, unleashed the most intense social unrest in Israel in decades, just ahead of this week's observance of Passover.
Slutsky, president of the independent synagogue Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living, in Glencoe, has Seder tweaks in mind for his 18 guests when they sit down for ritual readings, blessings and discussion.
One big change will come at the end, he said, when “Next year in Jerusalem” is traditionally recited.
“We're going to read from the Israeli Declaration of Independence," said the 76-year-old Slutsky, particularly a passage that promises the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
The plan proposed by Netanyahu would give him and his allies — the most right-wing government in Israeli history — more control over the country's judiciary. Critics say it would concentrate power in his hands and destroy a system of checks and balances. They also say he has a conflict of interest since he himself is facing trial on corruption charges.
Abigail Pogrebin, author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” has been watching Israel closely. She'll host 30 people at her Seder in New York.
“It feels impossible to ignore this difficult and deflating inflection point when it comes to Israel right now,” she said.
Traditional Seder symbols will take on new weight, Pogrebin said.
“The bitter herb, which reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, will remind us also of the bitterness of this government’s bigotry — against non-Orthodox Jews, against LGBTQ Jews, against Arabs, against women in the army. It will remind us of the bitterness of dictatorship and intolerance, the abrogation of tenets we hold dear,” she said.
The breaking of matzo will mark the “brokenness of Israel’s democracy right now — or how close it has come to a breaking point,” Pogrebin said.
And the opening of a door for Elijah, when Jews symbolically welcome in a messianic time of justice and righteousness, “will demand that each of us at our table think about how we will work to bring justice about.”
A large percentage of U.S. Jews observe Passover, a holiday that commemorates the Hebrew slaves' biblical flight from Egypt and emphasizes the importance of passing on that freedom story to children at the Seder table.
North America has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.
“The Seder is for me a perfect moment for us to engage in conversation around a myriad of topics that are about unfinished projects or places where there’s strife or turmoil,” said Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver in Canada, a service, fundraising and relief organization.
He'll also host 30 for a Seder, including non-Jews and guests with diverse political and religious opinions.
Shanken will put down a second Seder plate to go with the one holding traditional symbols of the Passover story. His second plate will include a block of ice that will be left to melt as a reminder to take climate action. But it's the Passover narrative itself and the founding of Israel 75 years ago that will frame conversation about current Israeli politics.
“Our story was never without turmoil. It was never without strife. It was never without disagreement,” Shanken said.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs also expects deep discussion about the protests and Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. She is CEO of T'ruah, a U.S.-based nonprofit collective of rabbis focused on human rights in North America, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“It’s important for Jews to talk about what does it mean to fight for democracy in the Jewish state, both for Jews and also for non-Jews who live there?” she said.
Rabbi Mike Uram, chief Jewish learning officer for the Jewish Federations of North America, anticipates that Netanyahu's government will be one of a range of issues discussed at Seder tables around themes of slavery, democracy and freedom.
Those include “consumption and the risks of global warming," as well as ”the lack of equity in American life, and the ways in which Black folks have to be afraid of structural racism and violence from a police force, as a form of slavery that people need to be freed from," he said.
Jonathan D. Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, sees inroads in the Haggadah, the text Jews use in many versions during a Seder, for open discussion on Israel.
“There are plenty of moments where one can really jump from the traditional liturgy and ask important questions. And that’s really what Passover is supposed to be about,” he said. “It’s not about debating. It’s about asking and framing the questions. I think productive discussions can really take place.”
Productive is key.
During Donald Trump's presidency, some families were torn apart along the red-blue divide. That continues to play out during holidays when loved ones gather, and also includes friction over pandemic-related issues, like vaccines and masks.
For some American Jews, this is different and the same in big ways.
“There are definitely a mix of opinions in my family about politics, and specifically Israel politics,” said Talia Benamy, 36, in Brooklyn. “But I think there is a broad consensus: Everybody in my family agrees that this legislative push is bad news.”
When Benamy joined protests in New York in solidarity with demonstrators in Israel, she was joined by her 64-year-old mother, her brother and his three children, the oldest age 7. Participating was a good pre-Passover primer for the young ones.
“One of the key lines in the Haggadah is the idea that in each generation it’s incumbent upon us to see ourselves in the Passover story,” she said. “The way that we can do that now is to have conversations about what does freedom really mean, how does it manifest, and for who?”
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