A Mexico City Night Different From All Others

The Shabbat candles flickered, and chicken soup umami wafted from the kitchen.

After a week of preparation, I peered down the makeshift dining table at my roommate Diana and my twelve guests. None were local to Mexico City. We were all transients, strangers in a strange land. We were a mix of Jews, Christians, Catholics, and atheists. A mix of Americans, Mexicans, and an Argentinean. A mix of East and West Coasters, Midwesterners, and Southerners. A mix of black, brown, and white.

All twenty- and thirty-somethings, our colors and backgrounds blended like the ingredients in the charoset, each one highlighting the other, making for a sweet combination more than the sum of its parts.

Diana and I—the Jewish contingent—introduced ourselves, explaining that seder is a storytelling process followed by a festive dinner. That we would lead the way but we hoped everyone would participate. That we wanted people to question, and if we couldn’t answer, Google surely could.

We began with a round robin sharing our placecards. In addition to our names, each held factoids about a Jewish community around the world.

“I’m Macarena,” my Argentinian friend announced when her turn arrived.

“Hiiiiiiiii Macarena,” we all responded in chorus.

“What do Hungarian Jews place on the Seder table to represent the precious gifts given to the Israelites as they departed Egypt?”

We all looked around dumbfounded, until, in Spanish, she gave us a clue. “Sería un buen regalo para mujeres. Seguro que todas las mujeres aquí tiene… (It would be a good gift for women. All the women here definitely have some…),” she added, winking my direction.

“Chocolate!” we shouted. “Wine!”

“Noooo…. Joyas!” She shared gleefully. Jewelry.

After we made the rounds, Diana and I shared a bit of the history of the Jewish community in Mexico. We explained that we hoped tonight would be an opportunity to share diverse stories of struggle and liberation. That we would learn together from the story of Exodus, and explore its relevance today. “We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy,” I read from Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah.

We embarked, popcorn-style, around the table, trading off reading mostly from a racial justice Haggadah that quoted Fannie Lou Hamer, Carl Sagan, Harriet Tubman, and Bryan Stevenson, along with the Torah. Diana’s grandparents looked down at us from their crystal frame on our TV console, and my grandparents’ loaned Maxwell house Haggadahs peered up from the table, stained and bent from decades of use.

When we arrived at the first handwashing, we read from a feminist Haggadah about the role of women, and water, in the Exodus story. We invited our guests to wash the hands of the person to their right, but not without first asking for consent. They eagerly complied, each one looking into his or her neighbor’s eyes—some for the first time—speaking in hushed tones, then gently pouring water over their neighbors’ hands.

We moved from the handwashing (urhatz), to eating a green vegetable dipped in saltwater (karpas), to breaking the middle matzah (yahatz).

Why does the Haggadah urge us to feed the hungry at this point in the seder, when it’s already more or less too late, we asked ourselves, with the help of Safran Foer. “Could it be teaching us that this night, in one crucial way, is just like all other nights? On all other nights we eat to satisfaction without a thought for the hungry stranger. Tonight, we speak of hunger, but do nothing to alleviate it.”

We reflected silently, asking ourselves why that is so, and what we should do differently.

Then there were bowls of matzah ball soup with cilantro and jalapeño—a nod to our host-country. A cucumber, tomato, avocado and serrano chile salad. Fish with mole-inspired rub. My mom’s sweet and sour brisket. Flourless chocolate cake. Lemon bars. Matzah toffee rocky road bites.

And then, the great hunt for the afikoman commenced, Vanessa emerging triumphant from beneath the table. We followed a rich meal with those final dry bites, and we read:

“[The afikoman] embodies the faith that there is always a way, concealed though it might be, to make the transition from the suffering that we know, to the future that we dream…. We sit together with our great diversities of worldviews, for we are celebrants of freedom and will brook no tyranny of thought. But we all eat the afikoman together, gesturing toward a sense of the world that sustains us in our hope.”

We stood up and opened the door for Elijah, arms slung around each other. Diana and I began to sing Eliyahu hanavi, surprised when the voices of our guests, high and low, joined in the Hebrew on the second round.

As our celebration of our freedom came to a close, I silently prayed that those voices would continue to echo through our minds, sustaining us in our many fights for freedom, at least until next year.


Ryan Cohen is a Fulbright-García Robles conducting research about how to advance social mobility in Mexico City. She previously worked for the Obama White House, ACLU of Michigan, Department of Justice, and Mayor of Los Angeles. Her writing has been featured in the Huffington PostReformaUniversity of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change, and Kennedy School Review, and can be found on her website ryanashleycohen.com.

Episode 31: Liz Fisher, Repair The World – April 2nd, 2018

This blog links to our COO Liz Fisher’s appearance on “It’s Who You Know: The Podcast.”

Elizabeth (Liz) Fisher is the Chief Operating Officer at Repair the World, where she leads the organization’s growth, operations and external affairs.

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Haggadahs blend traditional, modern topics

This article originally appeared in Greater Phoenix and Northern Arizona’s Jewish News on March 28, 2018.

By Selah Maya Zighelboim

Haggadah means “telling,” and different versions of the Passover Seder script, translated and retold in countless languages countless times, can certainly be telling about the state of the world.

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News Briefs: Repair the World Names Director, Mayim Bialik Meets Rivlin, and More

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Exponent on March 28, 2018.

Repair the World Names New Philadelphia Executive Director

Repair the World: Philadelphia announced the hiring of Rachel Berger as its new executive director.

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Haggadahs Blend Traditional, Modern Topics

This article originally appeared March 28, 2018 in The Jewish Exponent.

By Selah Maya Zighelboim

Haggadah means “telling,” and different versions of the Passover seder script, translated and retold in countless languages countless times, can certainly be telling about the state of the world.

And this year’s crop of new haggadahs and supplements are certainly no different. Though the reading of the haggadah is a custom thousands of years old, these are all relatively young, as they place this ancient story in a contemporary context.

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Jewish organizations encourage retelling the Passover story with trivia cards

This article originally appeared on Religion News Service on March 26, 2018.

By RNS Staff

(RNS) — Quick: “Why do Jews from Gibraltar sprinkle brick dust into their Passover haroset dish?”

Or, “Why do Middle Eastern Jewish families whip themselves with scallions at the seder table?”

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With Houston still suffering, Jewish groups step up hurricane relief efforts

This article originally appeared in the JTA on March 22, 2018.

By Ben Harris

Avram Mandell is no stranger to disaster zones. As the founding director of Tzedek America, a Los Angeles-based social justice group that runs relief trips for Jewish teenagers, Mandell helped out in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the wake of a devastating 2016 flood.

So he was hardly surprised on a recent trip to the Houston area with 15 California teenagers to discover floodwater still in homes six months after Hurricane Harvey decimated the area.

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Repair the World: Philadelphia Welcomes Rachel Berger as New Executive Director

Philly Native Returns Home to Lead Jewish Service Organization and Work with Local Non-profits

Philadelphia, PA – Repair the World: Philadelphia, the local workshop of the largest Jewish service organization in the country, Repair the World, welcomed Rachel Berger as its new Executive Director. Rachel will work closely with Program Manager, Dani Horn; Workshop Coordinator, Kari Collins and Repair the World Fellows in Philadelphia who engage peers and work with local non-profits addressing food justice, education justice, and other social service needs.

“I am thrilled to return to my hometown of Philadelphia and to join an organization that taps into my passions of social justice and service alongside community building” says Rachel Berger, Executive Director of Repair the World: Philadelphia. “The Fellows here are deeply committed to serving with our partners in West Philly, Center City, and the Greater Philadelphia Area. I’m really looking forward to joining their efforts with the many organizations in Philly that make our work impactful and meaningful.”

Rachel has dedicated her career to building Jewish organizations that serve the underserved, advance justice, and deepen the connections between Jewish communities and their neighbors. She previously worked as the Director of Community Engagement at Footsteps, which supports and affirms those making the transition from ultra-Orthodox communities to the secular world. Rachel oversaw Footsteps’ community building and leadership programs, large scale public events, and foundation relations.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Rachel completed her BA in Fine Art at Yeshiva University and her MSW at Columbia University. In 2011-12 Rachel was a Dorot Fellow and is a current Wexner Field Fellow (Class 1). She recently moved back to Philadelphia with her family and is looking forward to returning to her roots.

“Repair the World: Philadelphia is fortunate to have someone with Rachel’s experience, passion, and hometown connection leading its efforts,” adds Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, Senior Program Director for Repair the World. “She will elevate the work and community relationships of our Fellows and will continue to make Philadelphia a model city for Repair’s Communities program.”

Repair the World’s Communities’ year-long Fellowship program connects Jewish young adults with local opportunities to make a meaningful difference in their community. Philadelphia, with eight fellows on the ground this year, is one of seven cities where the program operates. You can volunteer with Repair the World: Philadelphia next Tuesday, March 27th from 4:00-7:00 pm in an effort to #RockTheVote.

Philadelphia residents and neighbors can meet Rachel Berger in person at a welcome event with light snacks and refreshments on April 16th, 2018 at 6:00pm at the Repair the World: Philadelphia Workshop at 4029 Market Street.

Additionally, in advance of Passover, Repair the World: Philadelphia and HIAS Pennsylvania are hosting Immigration Stories: A Passover-Inspired Shabbat this Friday, March 23rd at 6:30 PM. Inspired by the Passover narrative, the event will explore past and present immigration stories in varying faith traditions. Guests will hear from local advocates doing important immigration and refugee resettlement work in Philadelphia.

Nationally, Repair the Word is teaming up with Be’chol Lashon to offer specially designed seder supplements this Passover (weRepair.org/Passover). The materials, part of the Passover campaign, #MemoryToAction, encourage seder participants to engage in meaningful, sometimes difficult conversations about how we talk about individual and systemic struggles for freedom in the context of the Passover story.

 

Rachel Berger is Repair the World:Philadelphia’s new ED.

This article originally appeared on Generocity on March 22, 2018.

By Julie Zeglen

Power Moves is a semi-regular column chronicling leadership movements within Philly’s social impact community. Send announcements to [email protected]

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J-Serve 2018: Jack Rosenblum

Each year, J-Serve: The International Day of Jewish Youth Service mobilizes more than ten thousand Jewish teens worldwide around meaningful service programs. Repair the World is a proud partner of J-Serve and supports global planning efforts through a series of web-based trainings for Jewish youth professionals across the country and around the world.

This year’s official J-Serve date is Sunday, April 15 (though some communities pick an alternative service date a few weeks before or after to maximize participation). We checked in with Jack Rosenblum, a high school senior from Virginia Beach, VA, currently serving as BBYO’s Male Teen Vice President of Jewish Enrichment, to find out how he’s planning to take part in #jserve2018. Check out what he had to say!

How did you get involved with J-Serve? What’s your background with service/volunteering, and how did that experience draw you to J-Serve?

What sort of project(s) will your J-Serve community be working on?
In my community, we usually tend to focus on service projects geared either towards working with the elderly communities in our area or building projects to help the environment. With my chapter, we’ve visited synagogues and old age homes and had incredible experiences spending time with the senior community of our city. It’s a really meaningful moment to be able to make a senior citizen laugh and know what you did made their day better, all while learning from them too about who they are and where they come from. This is something my chapter in particular has had great success doing in the past and will continue to work towards in the future – through J-Serve this spring and beyond. As a city we also love to rally behind environmentalism, especially towards the Chesapeake Bay, as we live directly on it. It’s very common for teens in our area both with our schools and with our chapters to create projects such as cleaning the bay or the beach or building oyster reefs. We have a very strong connection to the bay and to her well-being, which makes these programs very personal and meaningful to us.

What has been the most fun part of working on J-Serve so far?
The most fun part of this entire project has been working with more and more of my fellow teens in creating their own individual projects in communities around the world. It’s an amazing feeling to hear about all the incredible ideas and visions they have for engaging Jewish teens in service locally. It’s absolutely inspiring. J-Serve offers a great opportunity for Jewish teens to express how much they care about certain issues, providing them with the chance to engage 10, 50, 100, sometimes even 500 teens all together in an act of service. It’s an incredible feeling to know what you’re doing has such a large impact internationally and that all around the world people are benefiting from our mission. The fun part is getting to help my peers be creative in what they decide to do for J-Serve, and working together to elevate their service experience by engaging more teens in more meaningful service. Many of my fellow teens have initial ideas or thoughts about what they want to do, but after we get the chance to work together and bounce ideas off each other, we end up with these incredibly powerful and enriching programs. Although I do not get to actively participate everywhere, knowing that teens around the world are all doing such great work and being engaged is breathtaking.

What’s been the most inspiring part of working with J-Serve as a leader this year?

What do you think makes J-Serve successful in its ability to excite Jewish teens around the world about service? What makes it special?
Teens don’t realize when they’re first invited to a J-Serve project how much it will impact their lives. However, once they get there and actively participate in the incredible acts of service with teens from across their community, they understand one of our oldest Jewish values: tikkun olam (to repair the world). They connect to thousands of years of Jews doing what makes the world a better place. It also gives them an opportunity to be involved in a project that matters to them, supporting causes they care about. Whether it be saving the environment, helping refugees, feeding the homeless or any other amazing act, teens are doing projects which are meaningful to them and they can see the impact right in front of their eyes. It’s not adults leading them and telling them what they have to do, but rather it’s a group of teens deciding for themselves how they want to make a difference. J-Serve is important because it offers a platform for Jewish teens to feel inspired, empowered, and excited to do more; especially when they realize that all across the world other Jewish teens are doing the exact same thing: making the world a better place. It’s a very powerful feeling.

Why is doing service specifically in a Jewish context meaningful to you personally? What’s uniquely Jewish about doing good and/or giving back?

Keep up with J-Serve at jserve.org, by tracking #JServe2018 on Twitter and Instagram, and via their Facebook page. For more information on how to get involved, contact Rae Williams