Abrahamic Freedom Seder

New Jersey JewIsh STANDARD
Journeying together
By Elaine Kahn | Published 03/30/2006

A year ago, in Hope, N.J., Rabbi David Senter helped bring together Jews, Christians, and Muslims for a "freedom seder," honoring the historical Exodus tradition he says all three faiths treasure.

Senter then became rabbi of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes and planned to wait another year before introducing the innovative seder to his new congregation, he said in an interview. But during the recent controversy over the now-scuttled sale of American ports to a company in the United Arab Emirates, he heard things that disturbed him — "a fear, a paranoia" about where the purchasers were coming from, rather than "specific security concerns" — and decided not to wait.

Interfaith Hagaddah

"Celebration of the Journey to Freedom" is planned for Sunday, April 9, at Beth Shalom, which is co-hosting the seder with Christ Episcopal Church and the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson. The service contains elements of the seder and the Christian Last Supper and recognizes Al-Hijra, the Islamic New Year.

The significance of Al-Hijra, which is not a major celebration, is that "no matter how difficult the moments can be, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel," said Mohamed El Filali, outreach director of the Islamic Center, in an interview. "To persevere and to stand fast is the only way to stay true to the message."

El Filali laughed in response to the suggestion the Muslim community in Paterson is exclusively rightwing vis-à-vis the Jewish community. "We are middle-way," he said.

Lines of communication must be kept open, because one never knows what the long-term benefit might be, said Senter. He cited the example of the young Polish Jew Jerzy Kluger, who became "best friends" with a young priest who went on to become Pope John Paul II. The late pope credited that friendship with shaping his view of Jews and Judeo-Christian relations.

There are "a lot of difficult voices coming from the Muslim world," Senter said. "And, yes, they may be the majority. [But there are] a lot of moderate voices as well." It’s unfair to "paint the Muslim community with one brush. We don’t like that when that’s done to us."

The text for the interfaith hagaddah, which originally included only Jewish and Christian elements, has developed over the last 10 years, initiated by a member of Hope’s Jewish community and the Rev. William Potter of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Hope. Potter served as a chaplain at Ground Zero; within two weeks of 9/11, a series of events was set into motion that eventually brought Muslims into the seder.

The service begins with "Hinei ma tov" ("How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity") and includes familiar parts of the seder, like an explanation of the items on the seder plate, and the story of the Four Sons, albeit as a ballad sung to the tune of "Clementine." Grape juice is used instead of wine, to respect the Muslim prohibition against alcohol, said Senter. There is an orange on the seder plate, a relatively new Jewish women’s ritual; the idea of making the text gender-neutral is "in discussion."

Then there are parts not typically found in a seder or any Jewish service: praise of Allah, for example, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Participants are free to join in or not join in whatever parts they want, said Potter, whose hope is that they learn to be comfortable with each other without "reducing everything to inoffensive commonality." Nor was he trying to make the ceremony "a Christian seder, which many church communities have tried to do."

Asked what meaning he takes from the "Chad Gadya" song included in the service, Potter said he relates to its message of redemption. "We’re all waiting for God," and although Christians are waiting for the Second Coming, "what’s the difference between your anticipation and mine?"

When Senter was asked how he can recite the Lord’s Prayer, the best-known Christian prayer, he noted its widespread use in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs and said, "I have done work with recovering addicts and we have had to come to peace with the use of that prayer. In our culture, saying the Lord’s Prayer is no longer viewed as an open statement that one accepts the tenets of Christianity. I would not include it in a Shabbat service, but I also could not tell a congregant that it is okay to say it at an AA meeting if I were not willing to say it myself."

All three men said the seder may generate complaints from within their own faith communities, "but who cares?" said El Filali. "I think it’s a courageous step that we are taking. Only actions dispel misconceptions."

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