Seder at the Mosque

The Seder is the Jewish meal and annual event commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt in biblical times. It is usually celebrated with one’s extended family during a long dinner, with reading of the “Haggadah” and singing songs of freedom. This year, however, I was curious to join an invitation to a Seder that was planned—of all places—in a mosque.

There was one question that was repeatedly presented to me, from the time I called to RSVP in the Interfaith Passover Seder, as well as on my way there. Everyone asked me, as an Israeli, “It’s great you’ll be joining us, but do you know any Palestinians who will also be interested? Can you bring along ANY Muslims?”

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Imam Majid (in white) seated with other guests.
Imam Majid (in white) seated with other guests.

“Is it really difficult to get Arabs to attend?” I replied to Paul, who was driving his wife and me to the event. Paul is a professor for Israel Studies at Maryland University, who has been active in the Jewish and peace building community for decades. On 1989 he has set up the American branch of Peace Now. He’s also been attending similar Seders from about the same year.“At first these events were quite avant-garde, pioneering in bringing Palestinians and Jews together for a political-cultural dialogue. Later on with the second intifada (Palestinian popular uprising) the events became more inter-religious and expanded the outreach to Muslims of all nationalities. Throughout all that time it was hard to get Muslims to attend”. He goes on to explain that Muslims often find it strange to celebrate a Jewish festival, somehow outside their comfort zone. For others, especially Palestinians, it is difficult because they might be accused of normalization.

Will our drive from Washington D.C. to Virginia culminate in a bunch of well-meaning Jews staring at each other in a mosque, waiting in vain for a Muslim or two who may drop by to save the evening?

“Maybe Nihad Awad of the council on American Islamic relations will turn up this time”, Paul tries to inject some light into the bleak road ahead. “Oh”, I reply ponderously. I haven’t heard of Nihad, but Paul considers his work to be groundbreaking.

As we drive through the heavy traffic on a sunny Saturday, I learn that the tradition of these interfaith events began with the initiative of Andrea Barron. On the 1960s they were devoted to civil rights, then moved onto the campaign to end get out of Vietnam, to human rights in the southern sphere, and now in the last decades it’s about ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (the occupation of the Gaza Strip ended on 2005). Andrea will be leading the evening. I’m told her orthodoxy on peace activism is much stronger than in religious tradition. Great, I think to myself. Are we heading now to an inter-faith Seder, with Jews only and with little tradition?

We enter the mosque at ADAMS Center (All Dulles Area Muslim Society), and the first people to greet us are Husam, Wisam, and Wutun—all from Syria. Tarek from Egypt and Rizwan from the community’s board of trustees are also there. “All Arab-Americans, mostly Muslim”, I sigh with relief. Altogether we are 50 Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists in the room, in roughly equal numbers. I even spot a guy with a skullcap on. It seems the pessimistic premonitions on the way were excessive.

The Seder begins with some opening remarks, in which imam Magid recalls some of the progressive work that the ten branches of Adams was engaged in, including joint prayers, hosting Israeli and Palestinian peace activists or Kadis and rabbis. Last year there was also a historical delegation of American, Saudi, Jordanian and Palestinian Muslims to the death camp in Auschwitz.

Andrea concludes by saying that the miracle of exodus has become global. Americans, Iranians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Israelis and Palestinians seated at the same table can all look inwards to discovertheir own little pharaoh inside them. He keeps them engaged in slavery in one way or another, whether as master or slave.

Tarek presents the theme of the evening: imagining the future, with a strong sense of personal accountability. He speaks of the butterfly effect demonstrates how even a butterfly flopping its wings in Brazil can wage a tornado in Texas. In Islam, he explains, every individual is treated as such by god, not excused nor accused as a group or a nation. This aligns perfectly with the concept of Tikun Olam in Judaism, which also speaks of the individual’s role in healing, repairing and transforming the world.

We continue to the Seder plate. This one has a modern addition of an orange. Someone explains that this dates back to the 1970s, and symbolizes the advancement of women in the Jewish world. A woman leading the Seder was considered as strange as an orange on the Seder plate, explains Andrea. Another Jew at the table disagrees and says this actually symbolizes LGTB’s rights, since a group of lesbian Jews held a protest Seder in Cornell University with bread on the plate, but another group of liberal Jews convinced the lesbians that they went too far, and compromised on an orange. Two Jews, three opinions—this would be expected in a conventional Seder too.

Tonight we drink four cups of grape juice (this is a mosque, after all), which symbolize freedom, the commitment to peace, wise choices, and compassion.

Freedom is discussed widely by the guests of the Seder, each one with his/her own concept of it, each with another political connotation. We conclude with the traditional vow of celebrating “next year in Jerusalem”, adding that it shall be shared two peoples—the Israelis and the Palestinians. The same text is then repeated in Arabic.

A particularly moving moment is upon breaking the first matza of hope. With tears in his voice, a Syrian devotes it tothe seven million homeless people, the quarter million dead, and a sea of at least half a million orphans. Haytham is a Salafi, came to support the Syrian government,once he was dismayed to find his own religious stream responsible for the mavlum (oppressed). Egyptian Ibrahim hurries to add a prayer for peace to his own people. He is interrupted by the call of the muezzin: “Allah hu’akbar!”, god is great! Not as great as all the evil done in his name, I think to myself.

Grape juice and Seder plate with a women/LGTB's rights orange.
Grape juice and Seder plate with a women/LGTB’s rights orange.

When Mahmoud from Cairo reads the story of Passover, he pauses. When reading about enslavement of the Israelites, we are talking about a different kind of Egyptians. That is not the Tahrir Square generation. I laugh and add that when we read about the slaying of every first-born of the Egyptian people, that too is a different generation than modern-day Israelis. We agree that with all due respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many comment on, the surprising act of reconciliation of the evening is that the story of exodus is jointly read by a Jew and an Egyptian.

Upon reaching the plagues, participants share ideas of how the modern world is plagued. Some mention problematic immigration polices, the media, or poverty. Nihad says that our plague is injustice, and that we are all part of the plague when not doing enough. We all have injustice around us, close to us, in our “comfort zone”, and being silent about it makes us part of the plague.

When we reach the part about the four children, someone reads out an adapted version of the proverb on Passover night. The fearful child remembers the holocaust and thousands of years of persecution. Although he recognizes the current strengths of Israel—economically, diplomatically or military—he fears all that might disappear in a split of a second. The bitter child became that way by constantly fearing anti-Semitism. The silent child is overwhelmed by all the complexities of conflict, while dreaming of peace. The brave child is the one who knows his people’s history of persecution. He stands in solidarity with all those oppressed—of his own people and by his own people.

Upon pouring the third cup of grape juice to the Elijah cup another discussion begins, on what should the prophet bring to us? Some say health, others compassion, but they are cut short by Andrea. It’s been a long evening. The loudest ovation goes to the wise one who says Elijah should finally bring dinner to the table. And at this stage, at that level, it really doesn’t matter if that wise one a Jew or a Muslim.

About the Author
Tal Harris is the spokesperson of MK Amir Peretz (the Zionist Union) and a PhD candidate in sociology on urban migration discourse, policy, and practice at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Tal is also the former Executive Director of OneVoice Israel. As executive director, Tal expanded OneVoice's Youth Leadership Program in partnership with the National Union of Israeli Students. He has led several nation-wide media campaigns, and co-launched of the first-ever Caucus for the Two-State Solution in the Knesset (now the Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict), which engages more than 40 Members of Knesset across several factions. In 2012 Tal was elected as a member of the Steering Committee for the Israeli Peace NGOs Forum. Currently studying for his PhD in sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Tal holds a Master's in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a Bachelor's in Philosophy and Politics from the Open University. He regularly participates in international conferences, panel debates and assemblies including the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Qatar and Brazil; the House of Commons in the UK; and the Israeli Knesset. Tal regularly publishes articles about Israel, Palestine and the two-state solution in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Daily Beast, Times of Israel, Huffington Post, Israel-Palestine Journal and more. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the Israeli Labor Party and MK Peretz.
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