What freedoms are we celebrating this Passover?
The Passover Haggadah tells us: “In every year, each person must look upon himself as if he just left Egypt.” But what does freedom mean for Jewish Americans today? As local community members reflect, freedom encompasses more than political and physical liberty.
“There are things that enslave you that you don’t even realize. The pivotal moment is when the Hebrew slaves cried to God for help,” said Rabbi Joseph Krakoff, senior director, Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network. “When I cry out like that, I am ready to take the hard steps to being my best self.
“We need to look at these challenges, the things that hold us back from our best relationships with ourselves, others and God,” he said.
At Krakoff’s seder, a mirror is passed around so individuals can look at themselves and ask, “What do you like about yourself and what do you want to change?”
Joel Young, M.D., 58, a psychiatrist who is medical director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, believes people can be physically free but not mentally and emotionally free. He explains that many people suffer from addictions, a sense of inadequacy, ADHD, despair or fear.
“This is not necessarily rooted in reality and may be overblown,” he said. “Psychiatry and psychology can help. That’s modern-day liberation — helping people to liberate themselves and allowing the individual to be her own self.
“Jewish thought mandates that the individual needs to be strong and self-care is very important — to take care of ourselves, our family, friends and community. There is so much we can do for people. There has been such an expansion of available treatments that can reduce the suffering,” he said.
Scott Lowen, 32, who lives in Hazel Park, grew up in the Detroit area with all the freedom and privileges that millennial Jews typically have in the U.S. He views religious freedom within the context of generational differences.
“I like to think that I have the freedom to choose — like whether to go to seders or services. It’s more of a choice than it was for my father, when things were traditional,” Lowen said.
When asked if recent increases in anti-Semitism have changed his outlook, he said, “I do think a little more about what I put on the internet. I don’t publicize that I’m Jewish on Facebook. It’s not that I’m embarrassed or not proud, but I don’t know who sees it.”
Lowen is director of youth engagement at Temple Beth El and works with students of all ages. “Some have experienced anti-Semitism. A few are hesitant about expressing their Judaism. Others are loud and proud,” he said.
For many individuals who grew up in Europe, being Jewish meant constraints on freedom.
Irina, a teacher in her 60s who lives in West Bloomfield, emigrated from Russia several decades ago.
“In Russia, I did not have freedom. I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t have friends from abroad,” she said. “It was very difficult for Jewish people to get into the best colleges. Here I can say that I am Jewish. There I could not even say the word. It would show me as very different. ‘Jewish’ was like a bad word,” she said.
Ruth Webber, 86, a West Bloomfield resident, was born in Poland and was imprisoned in Auschwitz as a child. There, her mother would talk to her about happy family Passover celebrations from years past.
Since emigrating to the U.S. after the war, Webber has celebrated Passover and other Jewish holidays with her family for many years. But this year, the coronavirus has intervened.
“I don’t want to do anything that will endanger human beings,” Webber said. “People’s lives are more important than getting together for Passover. It hurts me that we cannot do this. I will talk to my family about the wonderful things we were doing for them (in the past) as my mother did for me. I have my past and I can go back to that. I hope and pray that this will pass soon.”
Rabbi Krakoff thinks their seder may be for immediate family only. Some families will be using Zoom or Facetime to connect.
“We’re not canceling Passover,” he said. “It’s so important in so many ways to tell the story of the transition and journey from slavery.”