Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Passover mixes recollections of Jewish history and awareness of today’s challenges

Friday night marks the start of Passover, when Jews around the world hold a Seder – a feast that includes special foods, prayers, songs and other traditions to mark the exodus of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

Passover – Pesach in Hebrew – is the Jews’ holiday of liberation. And while the festive meal is replete with joy and comradery, a large part of our Seder discussions revolve around our earliest difficult days as a people, when we were hopelessly trapped in dehumanized slavery and endless suffering.

Yet this ancient holiday is also as contemporary as today’s headlines. Discussions at the Seder table will deal with today’s developments as well as those in the long-distant past.


The awful images of the raging fire engulfing Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday are sure to be discussed at many Seders. The destruction of a house of worship is particularly painful to us, regardless of the faith of the worshippers.

Many of us will discuss how over $1 billion has already been raised to repair the cathedral, and how the president of secular France announced Notre Dame will be rebuilt within five years. We will pray for the success of this endeavor.

We will pray for the ever-elusive peace Israel longs for with the Palestinians. We will pray that Palestinian leaders will do what is best for their people and sit down to make real compromises that will lead to that peace – unlikely as it seems.

We will also discuss other terrible fires – not accidental – that claimed innocent lives and destroyed our own houses of worship. These include the arson attacks by the Nazis – first on Kristallnacht in Germany and Austria in 1938 – and then across the European continent by German soldiers and Nazis driven to mass murder by their all-consuming hatred of our people.

The fires Nazis deliberately set destroyed thousands of synagogues, often with the Jewish faithful trapped inside. And these horrible murders were just one aspect of the Holocaust that killed some 6 million innocent Jewish men, women and children across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Many of us will recall the last Seder celebrated in 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto amidst an amazing uprising against the Nazis who had already murdered millions of Jews.

This year our intergenerational gathering at Seders will also feature discussions about the current state of the Jewish people around the world and here in the U.S.

Most of us alive today were born after the Holocaust. But in 2019 we can’t take our safety for granted. It is far from certain that Jewish people can leave their homes on a Sabbath morning for prayers and come home unhurt.

And it isn’t only last October’s Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – when 11 Jews gathered for prayer were gunned down by a neo-Nazi white supremacist. There have been at least three other attacks on synagogues – in Ohio, Georgia, and Montana – that were thankfully thwarted by authorities since the Pittsburgh attack.

Jewish New Yorkers are on edge, as the world’s largest Jewish community was the target of more violent hate crimes than all other groups combined last year.

Most American synagogues already deploy off-duty police officers to provide security and are forced to plan for armed attacks.

And this Passover, Jewish Americans have to deal with a new source of anti-Semitism emanating from the U.S. House of Representatives. First-term Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has unleashed verbal assaults against American Jewry, including invoking the screed of dual loyalty.

President Trump and some members of Congress have denounced Omar, but many in our community are troubled by the failure thus far of the Democratic Party’s top leadership to hold her accountable for her bigotry.

Overseas, the situation of Jews in Europe remains unsettled and precarious. In Berlin, a just-released report by a watchdog group reveals that “bolder and more brutal” anti-Semitic attacks soared by 155 percent in 2018.

Authorities seem to be at a loss about how to deal with the anti-Jewish attacks that span the full political and social spectrum of society.

Rabbis and their families have been regularly threatened in Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands.

In France, synagogues in the heart of Paris were forced to cancel Sabbath services for fear of violence from Yellow Jacket protesters.

In Britain, beyond the Brexit debacle, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – once home to most Jewish voters – stands accused of mainstreaming anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.

Many of us will also pause to remember the 50 Muslims who were recently murdered during Friday prayers at a mosque in New Zealand by a gunman embracing the same deranged white supremacist ideology that motivated the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. Their tragic deaths are a horrific reminder that the flames of hatred still burn strong among some.

And we recall that New Zealand’s Jews were told by their government to shutter their synagogues the day after the shootings, for fear of attacks.

At many Seders we will celebrate that the Jewish state of Israel is stronger than ever – thanks in large measure to its amazing high-tech leadership and its strong alliance with the United States.

But there will be robust debate on Israel’s future with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent re-election victory. And regrettably, many of us will discuss how the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah are certain to continue deadly attacks on Israel, and how Iran is sure to continue its genocidal bombast calling for Israel to be wiped off the map.


We will pray for the ever-elusive peace Israel longs for with the Palestinians. We will pray that Palestinian leaders will do what is best for their people and sit down to make real compromises that will lead to that peace – unlikely as it seems.

Finally, Friday night we will also celebrate the gift of memory. Remembering our failures, trials and tribulations, remembering the sting of a slave master’s whip, remembering the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto who died so we could live – all of this is as crucial to our future as all the celebrations of past miracles and promise in the years ahead.