Around the Passover dinner table, Jews retell the story of slavery and the fight for freedom. The holiday is filled with symbols of the Seder — wine for redemption, saltwater for tears, an egg for the cycle of life.
This year, some of these traditions are especially poignant. With anti-Semitism on the rise, threats directed at Jewish community centers and schools and social injustices like human trafficking at the forefront, the ancient story of Passover takes on a new, urgent meaning. In fact, anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States are up, according to a new poll released Thursday by the Anti-Defamation League.
“The story from our freedom from Egypt to the promised land is a powerful metaphor for the journey we are on now,” said Rabbi Tom Heyn of Temple Israel of Greater Miami “We are not there yet. We have a long way to go.”
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South Florida rabbis say the message of freedom and justice is crucial to understand this year, with all that’s going on in the world and around the block. Rabbis say that as Jews gather around the Seder table to mark the eight-day holiday, which begins Monday night at sundown, it is important to reflect on what needs to be done so that everyone is free of human bondage.
“The message of Passover is hope that we can change, that we can make things better,” said Rabbi Frederick Klein, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. “The story of Passover is one of liberation.”
The Seder, a ritual-infused Passover meal that literally translates as “order,” centers around the Israelites' exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. They fled the harsh slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh after Moses received a command from God to return to Egypt to set his people free. They left so quickly that the bread they had planned to take did not rise, hence, the unleavened bread, or matzoh, and flourless cakes, one of Passover’s traditions.
Jewish religious leaders say this year’s celebration of Passover is the perfect forum to try to solve some of society’s most pressing issues: hate, human trafficking or modern-day slavery, and income inequality.
“We are in a toxic, divisive environment,” said Jacob Solomon, president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “The dramatic increase in anti-Semitic behavior has people on edge.”
As of March 21, there were 167 bomb threats against Jewish community centers, schools or federations in 38 states and three Canadian provinces, according to the latest tally by the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish advocacy group. People also have carved and painted swastikas and other anti-Semitic symbols on cars and synagogues.
Last month, at least five cars in Miami Beach were marred with the offensive Nazi symbol. Timothy Merriam was later arrested and charged with the vandalism. Since the beginning of the year, the Alper JCC in Kendall, the Miami Beach JCC and the Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie were shut down several times and schoolchildren evacuated. Tombstones were knocked over at least three Jewish cemeteries across the country.
Even though a Jewish teen with dual Israeli-American citizenship was arrested and charged in connection with some of the U.S. threats, that surprising twist hasn’t calmed nerves.
“We feel vulnerable,” said Nancy Zaretsky, founding chair of The Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Human Trafficking Task Force. “We feel threatened.”
Zaretsy said no one should have to walk outside and see a symbol of hate carved into a car.
On Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League released two polls that looked at Americans’ views of Jews and other religious groups. The polls, based on about 5,000 interviews, showed that 14 percent of Americans harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, up from 12 percent in 2013, the last time polling was done on this topic.
The polls also showed that for the first time a majority of Americans, 52 percent, were concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews. And an even higher percentage, 76 percent, were concerned about violence toward Muslims.
The ADL’s took its first poll of 1,500 people in October, in the midst of the presidential campaign. The second poll of 3,600 was conducted in January and February.
“We conducted two polls to ensure that we fully understood the mood of the country,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “The good news in this research is that today a large majority of Americans do not subscribe to common anti-Semitic stereotypes. But it’s discouraging to know that Muslims and other minorities feel unsafe. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do.”
And while anti-Semitism is clearly a concern, Jews say social injustices are as well. During Passover, themed Seders are common, including one recently held at the Jewish Federation that focused on human trafficking.
“We are living in a world where people feel enslaved and are the victims of forces beyond them,” Rabbi Klein said at that Seder.
Advocates from different faiths and agencies that combat trafficking gather every year at the Seder to fight modern-day enslavement.
“I didn’t even realize this was in our own backyards,” said Olivia Cantu, South Florida director for Emerge USA, a nonprofit that helps educate and empower Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian communities. “I am very impressed with how the old ritual can be transferred to modern-day issues.”
When Jews gather Monday for their own Seders, they should be mindful of three things to strive for, said Rabbi Eliezer Wolf, who leads Beit David Highland Lakes Shul in Northeast Miami-Dade:
▪ “We as a people need to strengthen our bond with each other and be unified. When we are one, we are strong.”
▪ “We need to increase our faith in God and appeal to the mighty hand of God’s protection, which is the same mighty hand that God used to save the Jews from Egypt.”
▪ “We need to continue to appeal to government, local and national, to keep doing more to uproot the negative forces in our community and ensure an environment of respect.”
And, they stress, it’s never a good idea to live in fear.
“We will not become terrorized,” Wolf said. “We represent the forces of goodness and the forces of goodness will overwhelm the forces of evil.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the symbolism of wine in the seder.