Passover and Easter in the Age of Covid 19. And, Beyond

Passover is a celebration of freedom; Easter is a celebration of new hope. Both speak to salvation. Both are marked by intricate, formal liturgies which follow specific, vital steps. Both necessitate ritual. Both require community.

What could happen in such a year as this? We were all faced, we Jews and Christians, with a surreal existence which obliterated all our usual expectations. Every colleague I had – in either realm – struggled to understand what was needed, what could be done, what could be salvaged or transformed. Where were our congregants? How could we serve them honestly?

Some recorded services. Some went awkwardly, unusually, “live” from empty sanctuaries. I led an unorthodox seder from my tiny home office; others surely joined me from their own solitary locations. We were all, I want to imagine, rethinking, reconceptualizing, reformulating every aspect of rituals and texts we had recited for years.

This year, we were (are) in mitzrayim – a narrow space. This year we were indeed surrounded by darkness, threatened by death.

This year some of our own cannot visit the ill or bury their dead.

We are isolated and we are crammed together.

We are living in not-knowing.

We told the Passover story while living it. The Israelite slaves, too, did not know how to escape the death pursuing them. They had no idea how they would traverse the Reed Sea. How must it have felt to walk through a passage which could crash down and drown them at any point?

My Christian friends, accustomed to rejoicing in the story of life beyond death, remained largely isolated and alone. To celebrate hope, not just to believe in it, seemed, one told me, temporarily impossible. “Next year,” she said.

Next year, indeed. At one point I asked my congregants to sing a Passover song as if they were singing it next year. “Let’s imagine ourselves living the joy of Miriam’s dance of freedom,” I said.

Keva (structure, framework) and kavannah (intention) often know an imperfect balance in our rituals, in our celebrations, in our festivals. We all suffer from the difficulties too much keva can inflict upon our spiritual lives. Too much keva can blind your prayer, act as a muzzle on your inner voice. Stay wedded to the recitation of texts because they’ve been recited for centuries and you may find the texts drying out before you, the words turning into sound without resonance.

Kavannah needs a foundation, a place it can stand on. Our intentions this Passover, this Easter — they needed to note who we are right now, what we fear right now, what we long for right now.

Keva and kavannah danced a new dance this year for both Christians and Jews.

Passover is a celebration of freedom; Easter is a celebration of new hope. This year, Passover marked why freedom is precious. Easter marked the joy of rebirth.

Hope, however, is not to be taken for granted.

We may say “we will all get through this,” but we won’t. Next year at this time we will be remembering not merely the innocence we lost, but the lives. Our celebrations next year will know a new fragility.

May we honor that fragility. May we guard it, and keep it close. May it help us understand Passover and Easter again, anew, for the first time. May it help us understand now and in the future what we must do.

We all need liberation. We all require freedom. We must rebirth this world.


Longing for Liberation: Passover Reflections on an Open Hillel

open hillel“You know,” he told my son, Erik, “thirty years ago we stood in a New York street saying goodbye. And your mother cried the tears of a sister.”

“Mohammad,” I said, “you are going to make me cry again.”

It is more than three decades since I saw Mohammad. In the interim he has married. He is now the father of five children. He has lived and worked mostly in the United Arab Emirates; he only returns to his parents’ home in Ramallah for visits. His family is scattered — his brothers and sisters have lived in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the world. Mohammad commutes these days to workplaces and countries far from his own family.

We were (and are) the best of friends. Mohammad, my husband, Ralf, and I used to joke about the worlds we represented: European, Middle Eastern, and American. We compared cultures and religions, family life and personal aspirations. Mohammad and I called each other “cousin.”

Palestinian and Jewish, we know that we are related.

In those long-ago days, we both belonged to an international graduate student group that created educational programming around conflict-ridden areas. Themes of those programs? Peoples silenced, peoples longing for liberation. In those days, I also taught adult education courses on the Holocaust and  the complicated history behind the birth of Israel. Same themes, obviously.

I offered those courses at our college Hillel.

Then, I spoke about the invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Algerians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. I spoke publicly about the way the IDF had aided and abetted in wholesale slaughter of innocents. There were those who disagreed with me and my conclusions. But no one ever shushed me.

Today, college students who openly critique Israel are not only being shushed. They are being bullied.

Last month, Hillel International sent Swarthmore College a letter threatening legal action if the college’s Hillel chapter went through with a planned program bringing Jewish Civil Rights veterans who are sharply critical of Israel to campus. Hillel International also pressured the Hillel chapter at Muhlenberg College to cancel the same program.

There, however, the program went forward. It was financed by Open Hillel, a student-run campaign that aims to encourage open discourse at campus Hillels, in part by changing the “standards for partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines that exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.
The program, as one might have predicted, was quite successful. Over 100 students and faculty showed up. But the pressure from Hillel International was too much for Muhlenberg’s Hillel president, Caroline Dorn, who resigned. She wrote:

I feel Jewishly at home in Open Hillel’s leadership for the first time in a while. I don’t have to choose between being Jewish and being Pro-Palestine–those two important parts of my personal identity can complement each other. It’s a wonderful feeling to be accepted, supported, and to feel like I have a community of open-minded and progressive Jewish friends and allies. I am deeply disappointed that Hillel International’s exclusionary Standards of Partnership keep Muhlenberg Hillel from serving this function in my life.

Open Hillel also released a statement:

Hillel is facing a choice – it can continue to spend valuable resources devoted to fighting its own students in an attempt to dictate what students can and cannot say about Israel/Palestine, or it can return to its mission of engaging Jewish students.

Is it genuinely impossible for Hillel to welcome all Jewish students, regardless of political persuasion or perspective? If so, we need to ask specific and trenchant questions in order to understand why (and how) that has happened. Who donates, who funds, and who, we might ask, determines Hillel International’s policies?

Mohammad and I will be talking again this weekend. I expect we will do as we have always done: Express our anguish for our (related) peoples. But at least, in that conversation, no one will shush or bully us or demand that we be other than we are.


P.S. May Jews sit down tonight to tell a story of national liberation with all the world’s people’s in mind.