By Charles Bernsen
The haggadah used during this year’s Community Relations Seder included a four-page section written by Vanderbilt University senior Gregory Bernstein that juxtaposed contemporary social justice goals – economic equity, criminal justice reform and affordable housing – with ideals found in the Jewish Bible and traditional rabbinic texts.
“It shows how social justice values are reflected in traditional Jewish values,” said Bernstein, who attended the seder along with almost 40 other Vanderbilt students, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Like Bernstein, many of the students who attended the seder are active in Vanderbilt Hillel. Others represented University Catholic, the Vanderbilt Asian American Student Association and the Vanderbilt Divinity School. What united them is their interest in social justice issues. Bernstein, for instance, is a volunteer with the Vanderbilt Prison Project, which advocates for prisoners and prison reform.
“Social justice has always been important to me,” he said. “And now I’m at the age where if I see [an injustice], I feel like I should try to do something about it.”
The Vanderbilt students were among 250 people who gathered at the Gordon Jewish Community Center on Wednesday, March 14 to take part in an early seder built around the theme of social justice. Along with members of the Jewish community, those in attendance include dozens of representatives from churches, mosques, social action groups and community service organizations, many of them associated with Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, a multiracial and interdenominational social justice coalition.
The annual event is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, and this year it was co-hosted by Vanderbilt Hillel.
Led by Rabbis Laurie and Philip ‘Flip’ Rice of Congregation Micah, the seder followed a unique haggadah – “Unmet Promises: Building a Just Community” – developed by Mary Shelton, a member of the Federation’s Community Relations Committee (CRC). She co-chaired the event with Avi Poster. It marked Shelton’s 10th and final year of involvement with the seder, and she was presented a framed papercut by artist Kim Phillips with the Hebrew words “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” a reference to Torah commandment to care for strangers.
Aside from Bernstein’s insert, the haggadah included a special list of contemporary plagues related to the them – “the fear of being stopped, arrested and convicted,” for instance, and “the bitterness of wage discrimination and wage theft” – as well as a remembrance of the famous Freedom Seder held led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in 1969 on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that used the Passover story to encourage action against ongoing civil rights injustices.
The guest speaker was Yavilah McCoy, a third-generation African American Orthodox Jew who heads a Boston-based diversity consulting company and is the founder of a nonprofit organization that provides Jewish diversity education and advocates for American Jews of color. She has been named one of “16 Faith Leaders to Watch” by the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy group.
Moses did not “become woke” to injustice of persecution until he “went down into the slave pit and put his shoulder to the grindstone,” McCoy said, and he did not understand what it meant to be a refugee until he was forced to flee to Midian after killing an Egyptian.
In the same way, McCoy advocates building genuine personal and institutional relationships that transcend ethnic and religious boundaries – a process she describes as “getting proximate” to those of different cultures – so that “your story will be my story and your liberation my liberation … Then we will understand what the work of social justice has to do with us personally.”
The seder was developed by Shelton and Poster along with Abbie Wolf, the Federation’s community relations director, CRC Chair Ron Galbraith, and Ari Dubin, executive director of Vanderbilt Hillel.
“Social justice is not new to Judaism,” Wolf said in her opening remarks, noting that tikkun olam – the obligation to “repair the world” – is one of Judaism’s most important ethical concepts.
Music is always an important element of the Community Relations Seder, and this year, in addition to traditional seder songs like “Mah Nishtana,” “Dayenu” and “Eliyahu HaNavi,” Congregation Micah cantorial soloist Lisa Silver, singer/songwriter Batsheva and instrumentalists John Capek and Chris Patterson performed a number of songs associated with civil rights and social justice, including traditional spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” and “This May Be the Last Time.” •