AJWS Haggadah re-imagines the Seder as a Call to Justice
By Jacob Berkman
New York, April 15, 2019: Most Passover Haggadahs have on their covers some variation of a still life of a seder plate, or a sketch of the ancient Israelites carrying sacks of matzah on their shoulders as they traverse the Red Sea to freedom. Most end with the call “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Not the Haggadah created by American Jewish World Service.
This Haggadah is different from all others, as its cover features a group of Burmese women dancing in celebration along the river that sustains their village in a land far from ancient Egypt. It ends with the call, “Next year in a Just World.”
And everything in between is meant to refocus the Jewish Seder on just that – global social justice, rooted in the Jewish tradition of repairing the world, tikkun olam, and the lessons emanating from the oppression jews have suffered.
“Next Year In A Just World: A Global Justice Haggadah” reimagines the traditional Passover telling of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt as a systematic teaching of radical Jewish empathy for anyone around the world struggling with oppression.
“The traditional Haggadah asks us to look inward and back in time, imagining that we were slaves in Egypt and we ourselves were freed. So what better moment is there to draw on our empathy for others and turn that inward reflection outward to the world?” the Haggadah’s author, Leah Kaplan Robins, said. “We were slaves and yet others are still slaves. We suffered, and others today are still suffering. AJWS wants to marshal this feeling, and connect it to social justice issues needing our empathy and our action now – violence against women, global hunger, disasters, and genocide.”
The AJWS Haggadah takes its readers through all of the steps that one would recognize from the thousand-year-old Passover ritual, but gives them modern-day purpose designed to inspire introspection about how its readers can help others.
For instance Urchatz, the seder’s first handwashing, comes with the reflection “Our hands can be vehicles for creation or destruction. We cleanse our hands and dedicate them to working for good in the world.” Karpas, the dipping of the vegetable in saltwater, asks readers to “see the tears of all who suffer injustice mingling with our hopes for life, rebirth and new possibilities for justice.” And Yachatz uses the symbol of the breaking of the middle matzah to recall “ the deep brokenness in our world and our commitment to repair it.”
The AJWS Haggadah uses the seder’s long-established components to start a conversation around the table that hopefully leads to action.
It establishes themes for each of the four cups of wine – Awakening, Solidarity, Action, Freedom – that follow the trajectory of social action: becoming aware of an issue and then working to overcome it. It matches each of the 10 plagues to a modern-day injustice, such as violence against women, disasters, and authoritarian regimes.
And it adds to the four questions asked during the “Mah Nishtanah” a fifth question, “How can we make this year different from all other years?”
Which it answers through a call to action: “Let us recommit to our sacred responsibility to protect the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable. When tasting the matzah, the bread of poverty, let us find ways to help the poor and the hungry. When eating the maror, the bitter herbs, let us commit to help those whose lives are embittered by discrimination, persecution and hate…”
And before Shulchan Orech, the Passover meal, the Haggadah asks participants to remember that 795 million people around the world who live with the daily reality of hunger.
Now in its second edition, the AJWS Haggadah started as a collection of annual Passover readings and reflections that the organization had published over 15 years – including essays from Jewish luminaries such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Its first edition was a supplement meant to be used alongside other Haggadahs, according to Kaplan Robins, who is the organization’s Director of Content and Storytelling. But in 2017, AJWS decided to create a full Haggadah of its own.
Available for free at www.ajws.org/haggadah, it has since been downloaded more than 250,000 times, according to Kaplan Robins. Along with the Haggadah, AJWS has also created supplemental materials such as place cards that can be set at each seat around the table that have questions meant to spark dialogue about social justice, as well as a primer and reflection on the tragic genocide of the Rohingya people of Burma – and links for how to work with AJWS to help those now suffering.
The Haggadah also takes readers on a journey around the world. Maggid, the retelling of the Exodus story, includes a series of Stories of Freedom that show people who have overcome struggles for human rights in countries such as Haiti, Guatemala, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And throughout, the Haggadah is infused with striking portraits of people around the globe who have been touched by the organization.
Because, Kaplan Robins said, “we’re seeing that there’s a real hunger for ways to connect our ancient Jewish tradition with contemporary issues. People are looking for ways to act on their values and help build a more just and equitable world,” she said. “We’re drawing on the biblical mandate that says ‘you were strangers and so you should help the stranger.’”
And that’s why, in AJWS’s Haggadah, the seder’s most iconic song, Dayenu – the song says that ‘it would have been enough if God had done X, but not Y’ – puts the onus for the redemption of the world on each of us:
If the world hears the cries of the oppressed, but does not come to their aid … It will not be enough.
If we empower our brothers and sisters to escape violence, but fail to offer them
refuge … It will not be enough.
However, if we persevere until stability, peace and justice have been attained … Dayenu! Then it will be enough.
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) by eJP’s native content team.