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“Doing justice to the Passover seder,” Washington Jewish Week, April 11, 2012

Washington Jewish WeekDoing  justice to the Passover seder
Washington Jewish Week
April 11, 2012
by Suzanne Pollak
Staff Writer

White House Seder 2012 Photo 2

Empire Kosher president and CEO, Greg Rosenbaum, right, chats with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the second annual Food and Justice Passover Seder. Photo by Ron Sachs.

A juicy ripe tomato sat in the middle of each table’s seder plate at the April 4 United States Department of Agriculture and White House Food and Justice Passover seder.

That vegetable was there to remind the 50 seder participants of those migrant farm workers who strive to get those ripe tomatoes to our tables, but who can’t always afford to buy enough food to feed their own families.

Rabbis for Human Rights, which represents 1,800 rabbis in the United States and Canada, is committed to helping these workers, a spokesman for that group said.

“We place a tomato on the seder plate in honor of … migrant workers everywhere who have demonstrated courage and persistence in securing a better life for agricultural workers,” the spokesman said.

The seder, held two days before the start of Passover, focused on the themes of hunger, access to healthy food, sustainable food production and the fair treatment of farm workers.

White House Seder 2012 Photo 1

Singing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and White House seder are (from left) Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation; Rabbi Sydney Mintz of San Francisco; and Alan Van Capelle, CEO, Bend the Arc. Photo by Ron Sachs

There are 17 million households who are food insecure, Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the participants who filled his executive dining room. Those taking part included members of President Barack Obama’s staff, employees at the Department of Agriculture and leaders of Jewish social action groups.

While the seder consisted of the obligatory four cups of wine, breaking of the middle matzah and tasting of the bitter herbs, it clearly was a very different Passover experience.

Once the 10 plagues were recited, those in attendance offered up 10 other plagues that they each agreed to work on this year. Some of the social issue “plagues” were bigotry, hunger, special interests, foreclosure and the immigration system.

Sporting a kippah, Vilsack said his department has a “great partnership with the Jewish people.” He noted that when the Jews walked through the desert, “they asked for manna from heaven. They asked for food, not riches or power.”

Today, 92 percent of those considered food insecure, meaning they live in fear of not having enough to eat, are senior citizens, people with disabilities and children, many of whom live with working parents, Vilsack said. In other words, “these are people playing by the rules,” he noted.

“We are in a very significant moment when we have to decide what kind of people we are. Will we turn our backs” on those who are hungry, he asked. If we do, he continued, “then what kind of generation are we?”

Alan Van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, said he grew up in a home where “we were as Jewish as we had money. When we had money, we belonged to a synagogue” and were kosher. His organization was created through the recent merger of Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

“Jews are not a passive people. We are sort of in your face” and were in the forefront of the civil rights and labor rights movements. “It is the pinnacle of who we are that we take on these challenges,” Van Capelle said.

He led the prayer over the fourth cup of wine, calling for everyone to “build a stronger, fairer, more just community.”

Jon Carson, director of the federal Office of Public Engagement, said the government “is most effective when partnered with organizations and foundations on the ground.

The seder was officiated by Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

After breaking the middle matzah, Moline joked that anyone finding the afikomen “could get a tremendous USDA grant.”

During the seder, participants read from a 16-page Haggadah prepared by Bend the Arc, which sponsored the seder along with Empire Kosher.

Inserted throughout the many prayers were statistics concerning hunger and poverty and an explanation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is part of the proposed 2012 Farm Bill.

Seders offer lots of great food, and this one was no exception. The meal was catered by Empire Chicken, whose president and CEO Greg Rosenbaum paced the room, peering at each plate of chicken with matzah stuffing and fresh vegetables. He asked several people what they thought of the meal, which also included a salad filled with figs and fruits and a fruit tart dessert.