Intersectional Seder Brings Together Campus and Community for Passover
Hillel advisors and students infused the Seder with social justice themes, connecting the Passover story of the Jewish people’s journey from oppression to freedom with others traveling that path today.
Students, members of faculty and staff, some of their families, and Chestertown residents gathered in Hynson Hall Tuesday night for an Intersectional Seder, hosted by Hillel the night before the start of Passover to share the tradition and encourage the campus community to consider its message in today’s world.
For the event, Washington College students created a new Haggadah, the book detailing the readings and ritual of the Seder, in collaboration with Hillel advisors Aaron Krochmal and Gabe Feinberg, professors of biology and mathematics, respectively. Krochmal said they started working on planning the event and updating the Haggadah in January, initially working from traditional texts, including some that Hillel had used at Seders years ago.
“Then we asked, ‘Can we identify themes? Are they unique to Jews thousands of years ago? Is this the same thing people are experiencing today in this nation and in other nations?’” Krochmal said. “The Seder itself is organized to be wonderfully amorphous and an amalgam. There are some core aspects, but Seders vary much more by culture and by region. We just took that dynamism in one direction, namely by asking ourselves, how can we use the themes here to galvanize everyone in the room and lift up the struggles of others?”
The students were keen to connect the ritual to issues of today. But the group was also aware their event would fall on April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, and that history became intertwined with the final Seder as well. As they began to integrate social justice themes, they used the Freedom Seder, written in 1969 by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a native of Baltimore who was integrally involved in the civil rights movement.
Students and community members who attended the Intersectional Seder appreciated all of the work to integrate today’s social justice issues with the Passover story, the traditional Seder, and the innovation of the Freedom Seder to extend the bondage-to-freedom narrative to others. Jude Souazoube ’24 said he was glad to hear Krochmal acknowledge Dr. King at the beginning of the night and found the way the Seder strove to gather and involve a diverse group of people in questions of social justice powerful.
“I love how it speaks to the importance of justice,” said Souazoube, who is president of both the Black Student Union and the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship on campus. “One of the things we are helping our fellowship see is the importance of being hands-on when it comes to justice. There is a real beauty in being counter-cultural and seeing justice as a human issue, and we should all be part of that.”
Hillel President Max Tucker ’23 helped create and read some of the Haggadah and helped make the matzah balls for the soup served during the Seder. He said the social justice emphasis fit perfectly with the way Passover tradition and Hillel's goals intersect in seeking to involve any who are interested.
“As an organization, Hillel is dedicated to social justice,” Tucker said. “The Jewish people have long been discriminated against. ‘You can’t come here, you can’t go there, because you’re Jewish.’ One of the most important things to us therefore is ‘all who are hungry, come and eat.’ Everyone is welcome. We wanted it to be as accessible as possible and as inclusive as possible.”
The roughly 70 people in attendance included students from Jewish, Christian and non-religious backgrounds, and several of those who were from other traditions said the emphasis on inclusion was what brought them to the Seder.
“Inclusion is why I’m here,” said Emilee Cramer ’23, who was raised Christian but isn’t religious. “One of my fears as a queer person is that many times there are religious barriers. This is a safe event for any and all students and community members. That has been really great.”
Krochmal said the Seder reflected Hillel’s approach overall, which focuses on providing for the social, cultural and religious needs of students of all backgrounds, roughly in that order. Students don’t have to declare their faith at any point in participating with Hillel, but Krochmal said his impression is that probably half of the students they work with are not Jewish or may be culturally Jewish but have less investment religiously.
Hillel Vice President Skye Hass ’24 joined the organization their first year at Washington College, having grown up in a blended family. Their father’s side of the family is Christian, while their mother, Marnie Hass, grew up in a Jewish family that stopped practicing during Marnie’s childhood. Marnie joined Skye at the Seder, and both of them were appreciative for the opportunity Hillel provided to reconnect with family roots.
“Part of what I was worried about when I considered joining Hillel was, ‘am I Jewish enough for this?’” Skye said. “Everyone has just been very welcoming and has an attitude of ‘if you want to learn more, we will teach you.’”
In addition to the students, faculty and staff, there were more than a dozen members of the local Jewish community in attendance as well, several of them helping to read parts of the Haggadah and providing support for Hillel. Mike and Fran Peimer have been attending Passover Seders on campus since they moved to Chestertown nearly 20 years ago and said this was the largest they had seen, despite it also being the first since 2019 because of the COVID shutdown. They too liked the social justice innovations in the Seder.
“You need to identify with the meaning of what is in the rituals and words; otherwise, it is just words and going through the motions,” said Mike Peimer, who also pointed out the value for Jewish students of holding a Seder on campus. “It is an important holiday. It is a family holiday, and this is their second family.”