“Let All Who are Hungry Come and Eat”: Passover, COVID-19, and Youth Leadership
March 25, 2021
This coming Saturday night, Jews throughout the world will celebrate the festival of Passover. The central theme of this widely observed holiday is liberation, as we retell the ancient tale of the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Needless to say, as we enter the second spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, mourning our losses, continuing to meet over Zoom, and slowly re-emerging from various states of lockdown, the subject of liberation feels particularly poignant.
The major ritual of Passover is the seder (“order”), an intentional multi-course meal that utilizes symbolic foods, songs, and storytelling to help create a dynamic intergenerational experience. Special emphasis is placed on engaging children and youth in this embodied exploration of our history, values, and hopes.
One signal moment in the seder is the chanting of Ha Lahma Anya in which we raise a sheet of matzah—“the bread of affliction”—and solemnly declare, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” While not a literal invitation to last-minute dinner guests, this recitation serves as a clarion call to help alleviate the physical and spiritual suffering that enslave far too many people.
This year, as I prepare for Passover, I am humbled and inspired by the courage and commitment of the members of the COVID-19 Boston Youth Commission. Sponsored by Hebrew College and the Center for Teen Empowerment, this semester-length initiative provides outstanding youth leaders from across Greater Boston the opportunity to develop sustained relationships and work together to address various pandemic-related issues. This includes societal ills that long predate the current health crisis and have been exacerbated by it.
In a recent session, we were honored to welcome a guest speaker from Children’s HealthWatch of Boston Medical Center. Our guest, a seasoned researcher, and educator, shared with us heartbreaking statistics about the increased number of children and families grappling with food insecurity in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth since the outbreak of the pandemic. As she moved through her PowerPoint presentation, the youth commissioners listened intently and engaged her in a sophisticated conversation about this contemporary plague, including the role of systemic racism and other foundational justice issues.
Impressive as it was to observe the commissioners engage in such a thoughtful discussion, it was even more impressive to witness several of them bravely share with the group their own struggles with food insecurity, and to hear the compassionate responses of their peers and mentors. For some of the youth, standing in ever-growing lines at local food banks is a regular part of their lives, while for others it is unimaginable. And so it is with several other issues we are exploring in this intentionally pluralistic program.
Simply put, there are not enough spaces for young people from different walks of life—racial, ethnic, religious, socio-economic, etc.— to engage in a focused and sustained exploration of their commonalities and differences, and to work together for constructive change. We need to foster such intersectional engagement and provide young people with more platforms to raise their voices and take meaningful action.
Having spent the previous six weeks developing relationships and learning about different facets of the pandemic, the youth are now preparing to implement small group projects. This will include a campaign to help educate more people about the painful realities of food insecurity in Greater Boston.
Passover is a time to reflect deeply on the struggle for human liberation and recommit ourselves to enacting change in the world. In participating in the seder and other spring rites and passages, let us join together across generations to envision a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world. “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Rabbi Or Rose is the founding director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College. He can be reached at [email protected].
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