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Jewish meal explores tolerance through historical lens

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

West Bloomfield Township – As the ceremonial meal neared its end Wednesday night at Temple Israel, a brightly lit dining room resonated with numerous voices murmuring the names of groups facing oppression or persecution in 2017: Muslims, refugees, immigrants.

The fifth annual Diplomatic and Interfaith Leadership Seder incorporated elements from the dinner that traditionally starts the upcoming Passover holiday, recalling how Jews’ ancestors fled bondage in ancient Egypt. In partaking in the centuries-old customs, officials from around the globe as well as across Metro Detroit were reminded how struggles for peace and religious freedom linger in the present.

“Until all God’s people can experience the quest for religious meaning without fear, the Passover to which we aspire will escape our grasp,” David Kurzmann, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, told the nearly 80 guests at the synagogue.

Wednesday’s event, which Kurzmann’s group coordinated, focused on exploring tolerance through a historical lens with participants from Poland, Macedonia and other regions as well as area interfaith activists.

As tensions rise over immigration reform and other hot-button issues grabbing the spotlight, presenting Jewish traditions borne out of a search for independence resonates now more than ever, organizers said.

“People ... are not leaving their homes in southwest Detroit and Pontiac. They are in fear of being deported,” event chair Seth Gould, vice president of JCRC/AJC, told the audience. “The Jewish community is keenly aware of how a threat against one is in fact a threat against all.”

The annual event emerged from the local arm’s work with diplomats, Gould said.

During a meeting last year with Juan Manuel Solana Morales, Mexico’s consulate in Detroit, officials learned his office was “being flooded with very fearful immigrants” amid concerns about intensified government targeting, Gould said. “It really resonated with us at JCRC and AJC because it’s very much a concern to us that there are people in the Detroit area that are living in fear.”

Consulate officials were invited to act as honorary event chairs of the latest Seder, which coincides with President Donald Trump’s administration recently announcing a sweeping rewrite of immigration enforcement policies as well as seeking to limit travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries.

In that atmosphere, sharing the Passover story and its modern connections with leaders who work across borders is even more pertinent, said Rabbi Josh Bennett of Temple Israel, who helped lead the gathering.

“I hope that the story helps to teach a universal value: understanding the plight of those who are seeking asylum, those looking for a place of freedom,” he said. “The Jewish people know very well the story of being a people looking for freedom. … I think that’s an instructive story as we try to understand how to accept people who are in this modern age dealing with modern versions of slavery, escaping those terrible circumstances and seeking freedom in other countries.”

The past and present blended throughout the dinner as attendees sat at tables arrayed with items evoking the Jews’ enslavement. At one point, they dipped green parsley in salt water, the latter symbolizing the slaves’ tears.

Earlier, the crowd sang along as Cantor Michael Smolash and the Madrigal Chorale performed a song titled “Oh Freedom,” harmonizing to lyrics such as “No more moaning over me, and before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

Kurzmann later noted the “increased manifestations of hate” reported nationwide, including threats against Jewish synagogues and attacks on Muslim mosques.

Others also acknowledged the mood among other groups.

“Anxiety is the most prevalent feeling right now among the communities of Mexican origin not only in Detroit but all across the state as well,” said Bruno Hernàndez-Pichè, Mexico’s deputy consul to Detroit. “What we are seeing is people basically preparing themselves in the case they get a deportation order or they get detained.”

That’s why some who gathered at the Seder hoped that uniting would send a message.

“It's very important for me to be here in solidarity,” said Steve Spreitzer, president and CEO at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. “There is a kinship among people who are marginalized, who are discriminated against, who are hated. You remember that history, you find that kinship, you stand together. … It’s time to be an ally.”

The focus heartened participants such as Sherzad Mamsani, director of Kurdish Jewish Affairs with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

“They showed the love for all mankind, which comes from the deepest sense of the Jewish faith,” he said. “The whole world is on fire right now. We as a Jewish community feel that if we do not do our part in healing, it would be like a betrayal to our faith and our message.”