A Shared Struggle, A Shared Freedom The Jewish Seder Celebrates Liberation. Tradition Is Expanding At A West Phila. Baptist Church.

Posted: April 19, 1989

The parish hall at Vine Memorial Baptist Church in West Philadelphia is not a likely setting for a Passover Seder.

Usually, lilting sounds of gospel music, not cadences of prayers said in Hebrew, fill the hall.

But Thursday, more than 100 people crowded into the hall to participate in a Seder sponsored by the Black-Jewish Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Women in bright spring hats and men wearing yarmulkes sat on folding chairs around tables in the hall, festooned with blue and white streamers.

In each of the last five years, the group of black and Jewish religious and civic activists has sponsored a Seder, alternatively in one of Philadelphia's predominantly black churches and in a synagogue.

"The major theme of Passover is liberation, salvation, freedom from slavery," said Rabbi Richard Address, who led the Seder. "It is part of our history (as Jews) and black history. Our religion teaches us that none are free until all are free."

Organizers said there was no better time than Passover, often called by Jews "the season of freedom," for blacks and Jews to celebrate what bonds them in the struggles against oppression and social injustice.

Passover, which begins at sundown today, is an eight-day holiday marking God's deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian slavery more than 3,500 years ago. The Seder, a special family meal with traditional prayers and songs, is held on the first two nights of Passover.

"We people of color understand what it is like to be in bondage," said the Rev. Lafayette Gooding, pastor of Zion Hill Church of God in Christ. "We were delivered and we understand the need to celebrate that deliverance and remember the suffering of slavery.

"God does not want His people under bondage. He wants His people to be free," added Mr. Gooding, who is also vice president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and a coalition member.

Until last week, Dona Shubert, a member of the Lighthouse Institutional Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, had never attended a Seder or participated in any Jewish ritual.

"I think it is wonderful. It is a chance for two cultures to learn about each other and realize how much they have in common," she said as she picked over a plate filled with matzo (unleavened bread), haroseth (a sweet mixture of chopped apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine) and maror (bitter herbs) - traditional foods served at the Seder.

Jacqueline Ward, a perky 9-year-old, may have hunted for Easter eggs, but Thursday was the first time she and other children had scrambled around a church hall looking for the afikomen, a special piece of matzo that is reserved for dessert. Only when the celebrators have eaten the afikomen may they end the Seder. It is a tradition for the children to hide the afikomen and hold it for ransom. The adults must pay the youngsters to retrieve it.

In a slight twist, it was Rabbi Address, regional director of the Pennsylvania Council, Philadelphia Federation, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who hid the afikomen. With little effort, Jacqueline found it, wrapped in a napkin and stuck between the keys of a piano.

"In my family, the kid who finds the afikomen always gets a dollar," Rabbi Address said as he pulled a crumpled dollar bill out of his pocket.

"But that's not enough, Rabbi," several people shouted.

"I am not from Cherry Hill, and in my part of South Jersey, a dollar is plenty," he quipped.

There were other adaptations of tradition as well. During the Seder, participants read from the Haggada, a ritualized retelling of the story of the Exodus. In recent years, many Haggadas have been modified to include contemporary readings as well as traditional prayers. Besides recalling the plagues God heaped on the Egyptians to break their will - such as boils, lice and the slaying of the first-born - the celebrators at last week's Seder discussed the modern plagues that bedevil humankind - such as war, environmental pollution, drug and alcohol addiction and the threat of nuclear holocaust. There were readings from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., anti- apartheid activist Winnie Mandela and Peter Fischl, a 15-year-old who perished in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944.

Earlier, there had been a hush over the room when Irv Yudkin, a Philadelphia elementary school principal, sang the Ani Maamin.

"This song was was sung by Jews in the concentration camps as they were forced into the gas chambers," explained Yudkin, who also is choir director of the Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center. "The words are from Moses Maimonides, who lived in the 12th century: 'I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if He be delayed, I will await Him.' "

"I loved the Jewish songs," said Succorra Ward, a member of the Zion Hill Baptist Church. "The songs penetrate your heart even if you do not know the language."

And there was more than one "amen" and "praise the Lord" when everyone finished singing the black spiritual "Go Down Moses," with its haunting words:

Go down Moses

Way down in Egypt land.

Tell old Pharaoh

To let my people go.

Relations between black leaders and the organized Jewish community have been strained in recent years. But the Rev. William Moore, co-chairman of the Black-Jewish Coalition and president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, said Philadelphia has avoided the kinds of public confrontations that have occurred in other cities. He attributes this in part to the ongoing dialogue between black and Jewish leaders.

In June 1987, coalition members traveled to Washington, where they picketed the Soviet and South African embassies - a symbolic gesture in support of Soviet Jews and in opposition to the white minority government in South Africa.

Moore said the coalition also encouraged dialogue between Jewish and black teenagers. For several years, students from Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion and Girard College in North Philadelphia have met regularly in an effort to break down social barriers.

Several Akiba students came to the Seder.

"A lot of people think that black kids are big, strong and mean," said Hana Goldstein, 16, an Akiba student. "But they're just like us. They have the same troubles as we do. They're just teenagers."

Her friend, Hannah Angert, 14, agreed: "We all like the same things - sports, movies, dancing. . . ."

" . . . And missing school," Renan Levine, 15, chimed in.

"Black kids think they're the only ones who get followed when they go into a store," Levine said. "We walk into a Rite-Aid and we get followed by salespeople."

"Yeah, there's a lot of prejudice, not because you're black or Jewish, but just because you're young," Angert said.

Besides the Seder, the coalition sponsors a concert of black and Jewish sacred music. This year's concert, "Make a Joyful Sound Unto the Lord," will be at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 54th Street and Wynnfield Avenue. Admission is free.

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