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In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together

Rev. Channing E. Phillips, (left) Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Topper Carew on April 4, 1969, the night of the first Freedom Seder.

Friday night marked the start of Passover, when Jews around the world tell the story of Exodus. That story, with its radical message of freedom, has resonated with African-Americans since the days of slavery.

More than 40 years ago, these two communities wove their stories together for a new Passover ritual — the Freedom Seder.

The story dates back to April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. A week later, as the U.S. military occupied Washington, D.C., the sun set on the first night of Passover. For Arthur Waskow, who was working in the peace and civil rights movements back then, the day brought a revelation.

"I walked home, to get ready for the Seder, and that meant walking past the army, with a machine gun pointed at the block I lived on," he says. "And my kishkes, my guts, began to say, this is Pharoah's army!"

Waskow, who is now a rabbi, came up with a new Haggadah, a guide to the Passover service, that spoke to this moment.

"I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi," he says.

In 1969, on the anniversary of King's death, 800 people gathered in the basement of Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, D.C. There, Jews and Christians, rabbis and ministers, black and white, used Waskow's Haggadah to hold a Freedom Seder.

"In the church basement that night, the spirit was high," says Topper Carew, who was one of the readers leading the service.

Carew is a filmmaker and television producer, but in the late 1960s, he was an urban designer working in the civil rights movement.

"I will tell you that this was the first Seder that I'd ever been to — I didn't even know what a Seder was," he says. "But religion has been a Northern Star for much of the movement activity that has gone on in the black community."

And at Passover, that Northern Star can light up the room, Waskow says.

"There is a line that says every generation — every generation — every human being must look upon himself, herself, as if we go forth from slavery to freedom," he says. "And that night, that line became utterly real."

Carew raised his fist in that rallying cry that night, more than 40 years ago. He still remembers the power of that moment.

"Both the Jewish community and the black community have suffered great atrocities, and so the fact that we were coming together was a very important and powerful idea," he says. "And the way to best understand that was when people locked arms and sang We Shall Overcome."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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