Freedom Seder: American Judaism and Social Justice
On April 4th, 1969, on the first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jewish and African-American activists came together in the basement of the oldest African-American church in Washington, D.C., for an evening devoted to religious ritual, lively singing, and vigorous discussion of religion, politics, and liberation.
Known as the Freedom Seder, this gathering brought together 800 participants from different religious and ethnic groups and took place on the third night of Passover, a Jewish holiday that commemorates freedom from slavery. The ritual was hosted by Jews for Urban Justice, a recently formed progressive Jewish group, and was created by Arthur Waskow, an activist who had begun to reformulate his radical politics in Jewish terms.
On one level, the Freedom Seder is part of a long tradition of adapting the biblical Exodus narrative—in which the Jewish people is freed from slavery in Egypt—in support of liberation and resistance movements. On another level, this gathering set an important precedent for American Jews seeking to reimagine religious rituals in light of a wide range of political causes. The Freedom Seder was groundbreaking, attracting strong supporters and vigorous critics. In this exhibit, we explore the Freedom Seder in its historical context and as a moment of transformation in American Jewish life.
Each year, dozens of social justice-themed Passover texts and rituals are created by Jewish groups advocating for causes ranging from racial justice and gender equality to LGBTQ rights and environmentalism. The Freedom Seder provides an important starting point for thinking about how Americans of all religious backgrounds ceaselessly reinvent their religious and political identities.
This exhibit is the second in our series, Embodied Judaism, a project focused on the role of the body in Jewish life, including expressions of Judaism in song, in protest, and on the streets. This effort is a project of the Post-Holocaust American Judaism Archive (housed at the University of Colorado Boulder), a collection dedicated to the unique expressions of Judaism that have emerged in post-World War II America.