Tradition Brings Together Jews and Latinos For Passover

April 14, 2014

(Photo courtesy of Jude Joffe-Block-KJZZ)
Ali Urias, left, was attending a Seder for the first time.
(Photo courtesy of Jude Joffe-Block-KJZZ)
Rabbi Dean Shapiro, right, led the Seder.

Monday at sundown marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday, Passover. For the past decade, a Seder in Phoenix has been bringing together people from two ethnic communities.

About 90 people gathered in downtown Phoenix on April 10 for a Passover Seder, the ritual meal to retell the story of the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. A woman sang the traditional four questions in Hebrew that are a part of every Seder.

The first is, "Why is this night different than all other nights?"

You could also ask, why was this seder different from all other seders?

It’s not just that it came a few days early, since Passover officially begins Monday at sundown.

This was Phoenix’s 10th annual Latino Jewish Seder. Every year for the past decade, it has brought together people from the local Jewish community and Latino community.

It also includes handful who identify as both Jewish and Latino, like event organizer Carlos Galindo Elvira.

“It is about building alliances, building relationships, building a future together,” Galindo Elvira said. “And it all starts with a very simple theme: talking with each other and four cups of wine.”

Four cups of wine are part of every seder meal, and they do make it easier to make new friends.  

“These are two communities that really didn’t know each other, and to a large degree still don’t probably,” said Rabbi Maynard Bell, who is an emeritus rabbi at Temple Solel in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley.

 Bell helped found this event a decade ago when he was with the area chair of the American Jewish Committee, a human rights advocacy group that has supported comprehensive immigration reform.

“Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the United States,” Bell said. “Relationships begin by breaking bread together and getting to know each other.”

Or in this case, breaking matzo together. During the eight nights of Passover, leavened bread isn’t allowed. Instead, Jews eat matzo, a cracker-like flatbread.

Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel in Tempe led the Seder, which retells the story of how Jews overcame being enslaved in Egypt and then wandered in the desert. He highlighted the themes that might resonate with both communities and peppered some Hebrew prayers with a Spanish translation.

Shapiro instructed the dinner guests to read passages out loud from the Haggadah, the text that is read during the Seder.

“You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt,” they read as a group.

Then, Shapiro posed a question to everyone in the room.

“So I wonder, when have you felt like a stranger?” Shapiro asked. “Like a fish out of water, like a foreigner? When have you felt not welcome?”

At each table the dinner guests, many of whom just met, shared their answers with each other.

“It takes me back to my childhood, having to go to a new school,” said first-time Seder goer Ali Urias to the eight others at her table. “Not only did I not understand English so well, but I’m Hispanic. I just felt kind of out of it.”

Larry Goodman was sitting a couple of chairs away from Urias. He shared his memories of growing up Jewish in Boston when tensions between ethnic groups were palpable.

“I was one of that group when I was about 10 years old started going to Hebrew School,” Goodman said. “There would be kids waiting for us and throwing snowballs at us, sometimes with rocks in the middle of the snowball.”

The idea of bringing together Latinos and Jews for Passover in particular made sense to Vic Diaz.

“It is impossible to listen to the story of Passover and not think about immigration today,” Diaz said.

Like many of the Latinos in attendance, he is a member of the Hispanic Leadership Institute put on by local group Valle del Sol. He has also been involved in advocacy efforts for immigration reform.

“We have found great allies with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the past, and we still do today,” Diaz said. “So it is a beautiful symbolic event to just have us all in the same room celebrating this together.”

Once dinner was served, first-timer Urias dug into her first matzo ball.

“It’s delicious,” Urias said. “I thought it was going to be plain, but oh my gosh it is so rich in flavor I love it. I might have another one.”

As the evening wrapped up, Shapiro took on a question raised by Janey Pearl, who is Jewish and was born in Mexico. Pearl had a specific question about whether another flat bread she often ate was kosher for Passover.

“The first thing I thought of was, what about tortillas?” Pearl said. “I eat matzo but I also eat tortillas so I wondered about that."

Shapiro said the rules vary between Sephardic Jews, who trace their roots back to Spain and Portugal, and Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. The Sephardic tradition allows eating corn meal – and therefore corn tortillas – on Passover.

Shapiro thanked Pearl for the question.

“What we are talking about is what draws us together,” Shapiro said. “I think by drawing that parallel between matzo and tortillas, you are drawing a parallel between to two proud and beautiful groups of people.”

Passover goes through April 22.