Passover is another one of those Jewish holidays where “They tried to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat!” Seriously, it’s great food — at least it is in MY mom’s house, and I’m looking forward to it. What I’ve also come to look forward to are the discussions we have around justice issues.
The essential duty of Passover is to tell the story of how the Jewish people came into slavery and then how they came out of it. But it has always also been about community and those in need. “All who are hungry, let them come and eat” are words that will be said at every Seder, anywhere. There are match-up services to find Seders for people in need. Many times my family hosted people we had never met.
As I got older, we started using different Hagadot (plural of Hagada) the Passover story guide/prayer book. One version I like gets into comparisons and anecdotes related to the holocaust, but often we shifted into the relevance of pressing issues of the day. Tied up in the Passover experience are many themes that run concurrent with the struggles of today. Slavery still exists in various forms. Refugees and the right to flee persecution or simply to seek a better life seems always to be an issue. All that shifts are names, language, skin color, borders and regions, and the level of sincerity with which the party in power addresses it.
My day to day work is to abolish the death penalty. On April 19, 2000, I was getting out of the taxi from the airport and I saw mom come out onto the front porch, holding the newspaper. There was a huge photo of me being arrested the day before at the Governor’s mansion in Tennessee, protesting the execution of Robert Coe. That certainly led to interesting discussions at the Seder that night, as it did in 2004 when I brought with me one of the now 161 exonerated survivors of wrongful death sentences in the United States. Florida death row exoneree Juan Melendez, murder victim family member Bill Pelke and I were on a speaking tour across the county. Having a Catholic and a Baptist add to the conversation with their own very real stories of contemporary injustice made that year unforgettable for my family and our other guests. Another time we hosted a friend from Sri Lanka, a torture survivor and former prisoner of conscience, leading to similar memories. And the Passover story resonated with each of these men, too.
This year at our Seder table we will probably talk a bit about recent success at stopping executions in Ohio, the challenges ahead for me and the work I do with my fellow abolitionists to stop this particular form of state violence carried out in all of our names. Obviously, the question of the how Judaism and Jewish faith leaders look at the death penalty will be part of that discussion.
Most people don’t get that deep at their Seders, and my family doesn’t do that every year. But in its essence, Passover is about justice. It’s about remembering what happened to us, and making sure that we do what we can to make sure such things don’t happen to others. Chag Sameach.
Abraham J. Bonowitz is co-director of DeathPenaltyAction.org and been a leading organizer of Jewish and other clergy leadership in successful campaigns to restrict and repeal the death penalty across the United States. Please click here to sign the petition asking Congress to reject the President’s proposal to use the death penalty as a mechanism to stem the opioid crisis. Click here to make your Passover Offering!
This article has been updated for 2018. It was originally published by Faith in Public Life for it’s series by Justice Workers over the first 100 days of the current administration. It was also published at medium.com on April 11, 2017.
Read a Good Friday/Easter reflection by Abe’s Co-Director at Death Penalty Action, Scott Langley.