Ellen McGirt | Essays

Lessons learned from a "Freedom Seder"

This week, I was the guest at a “Freedom Seder” hosted in the home of a friend of a friend. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and a balm for the soul.

The Haggadah we used was markedly different from the traditional Jewish text explaining the order of the Passover Seder, which is the communal retelling of the story of Exodus. This version was an adaptation of the first Freedom Seder, held in 1969 to comfort activists and engage communities the year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Arthur Waskow, a civil rights worker who is now a rabbi, lived through the military occupation of Washington, D.C., following King’s death in 1968.

"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 told NPR. “And my kishkes, my guts, began to say, this is Pharoah’s army.”

That’s when he decided to expand the Seder playbook to use the following year.

“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 said.

Someone was smart enough to take some video of the event. Given the context, “We Shall Overcome” just hits differently.

The Seder I attended was beautifully multi-faith, multi-race, and intergenerational, a function mostly of timing and serendipity, rather than design. Everyone knew someone, but not everyone. Some lived near enough to each other to share a school district. And while there wasn’t an agenda outside of the text, there was room to express what people were feeling about Israel, Gaza, and the pro-Palestinian student protests now dominating the news.

And they did.

I left the table renewed, understanding that the hard conversations were still possible.

In that spirit, Equity Observer will consistently devote space to these issues of faith, conflict, justice, grief, and resolution.

To help me get started, I’ve reached out to Reverend Mark E. Fowler, the CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a secular and non-sectarian nonprofit working to transform leaders and institutions to confront hate and build respect for religious differences. Fowler has been doing this work at Tanenbaum for more than 16 years.

I was on hand last fall at the Coqual Summit in Manhattan when he spoke to a rapt crowd about his work to help leaders navigate the needs of their employees and interest holders after the Hamas attack on October 7.

He said this time feels different. Basic statements of support were backfiring or felt insufficient, and people were looking for more.

“[M]embers of their workforce are grief-stricken, walking around in constant fear,” he said. “And the numbers of people whose grief about something else has been reactivated by the grief and mourning that they’re experiencing with the events going on in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and the region” have caused individuals to seek both comfort and action.

“This was the first time that I actually remember employees contacting me directly, saying, ‘can you help us talk to our companies about saying something or doing something?’” he said.

What drives interreligious inclusion? How do colleagues, peers, leaders, and friends of friends navigate these conversations? And what would you like me to bring to my discussion with Rev. Fowler? Let us know.

I’ll let the Freedom Haggadah close us out:


We embrace the opportunity to share this table and this story with friends and our family’s next generation. We commit ourselves to the dream of a world where all children are safe from violence, free to learn and evolve, to thrive with loving adults and healthy communities, and to have all they need to grow up to be their best selves. You are our hope for a better future and THAT is why we do this every year.

One of the ways we can refashion this Passover retelling is our very relationship to the nature of God — we are a mixed family — some of us believe in a God, referred to as a Mother or Father God, or Allah, or Creator; some are atheists, some don’t yet know their religious identities, and some don’t think it matters. You are all welcome at this family table.

A version of this essay was originally published in the Equity Observer email newsletter. Catch up on past issues here. Sign up for insightful commentary, breaking news, and community shout-outs delivered twice weekly. Find your people.

Ellen McGirt Ellen McGirt is an author, podcaster, speaker, community builder, and award-winning business journalist. She is the editor-in-chief of Design Observer, a media company that has maintained the same clear vision for more than two decades: to expand the definition of design in service of a better world. Ellen established the inclusive leadership beat at Fortune in 2016 with raceAhead, an award-winning newsletter on race, culture, and business. The Fortune, Time, Money, and Fast Company alumna has published over twenty magazine cover stories throughout her twenty-year career, exploring the people and ideas changing business for good. Ask her about fly fishing if you get the chance.

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