On the evening of April 10, Jews worldwide will mark the beginning of pesach. This holiday commemorates the biblical tale of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, and it is central to the Jewish imperative to be mindful of and grateful for freedom. When we hold a seder, we mark the transitional moment when our ancestors—the forebears of the Jewish people—are said to have passed from bondage to liberty.
The triumph that we celebrate on Passover, so focal to our Jewish identity, was obviously short-lived: As we know when we look back at the persistently challenging nature of Jewish history, this time of joy was quickly followed by a long series of struggles for ideals as important as national independence, religious integrity, and cultural survival. Nevertheless, here we are (still!) in 2017 as a Jewish people. We are differently shaped for our past tribulations, but we are still here and are still strong as a religious and ethnic group.
In many ways, it very specifically was our historical struggles that led Judaism to look as it now does. As Reform Jews, that should be crystal clear to us. Reform Judaism is shaped by a constant (and sometimes strained) balancing act. On one hand we have the weight of our traditions and, on the other, of the desire to live within the realities of Western modernity. The sort of Judaism that many in our synagogue espouse is one which American Jewry adopted largely because 1) 19th century American Jews wanted to be both fully Jewish and fully American, and 2) Americans were, in many cases, not ready to accept into the fabric of American society someone who appeared “too Jewish.”
In 2017, it still seems that many Americans resist welcoming those who do not “look sufficiently American.” The recent spate of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks that have taken place in the country are a loud reminder of this; and, lest we think that looks aren’t often what matter in such cases, we can consider the attacks on Indians in America (that is, American citizens who emigrated from India) of the last months that have been motivated by the fact that, to some, such individuals apparently look like “the enemy.”
Of course, we as Jews do not face challenges identical to those of visible minorities: We can opt not to look Jewish by choosing not to wear Jewish garb. However, such an option is not available to other minority groups. Additionally, there are many individuals who resist the notion that they should need to eschew traditional religious symbols—whether a kippah or a head-scarf—in order to avoid persecution.
The right to live freely and safely as a member of a religion, race, ethnicity, or any other particular group is one that should resonate strongly at this time of year. We call the pesach season “זְמַן חֵרוּתֵינוּ,” (z’man cheiruteinu) “the time of our freedom.” It is my most sincere wish that during this z’man cheiruteinu, this year, we can work to protect not just our own freedom, but the freedom of all minorities with whom we share and collaboratively create society.
Doing something as challenging as this certainly will be work; however, it is absolutely necessary. As Jews, we greatly require such freedom; as one American minority group amongst many others facing similar pressures, we have an imperative to help foster a more just and tolerant society.
This pesach, let us all come together as partners in making our country a more welcoming and safe place for all people and peoples. In so doing, let us make a point as Jews to fight for the ideals that are essential for the health of our nation and our society. Most importantly, let us ensure that we do more than merely recite the words of the Passover haggadah, but instead bring them to life to fulfill the vision of our Jewish tradition.
Wishing everyone a joyous, meaningful, and efficacious pesach,
Rabbi Ari Ballaban