This interview with Cara Michelle Silverberg gives context, and shares the story, of her creation of the Work that Reconnects Passover Seder, found on our site here. We are thankful for Cara’s generosity in sharing the haggadah, and her story, with us! If you would like to more fully understand how White Awake frame’s this type of cultural, spiritual practice within the context of our work, please see our Community Practice section.
The WTR Passover Seder draws inspiration from the original Freedom Seder, created by Rabbi Arthur Waskow – a radical elder in the Jewish justice and environmental movements – in response to the events of the civil rights movement, and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. On April 4, 1969, 800 people gathered in the basement of Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, D.C. There Jews and Christians, rabbis and ministers, black and white, used Rabbi Waskow’s haggadah to build a new Passover ritual together.
Deep Ecology (and Black Prophetic Fire)
32 years of Passover seders may have prepared Cara Michelle Silverberg to lead the Jewish ritual and feast, but it didn’t inspire a passionate desire to do so. It took the work of activists Joanna Macy and Cornel West to do that.
Joanna Macy is widely known for a body of work called the Work that Reconnects (WTR). Based in deep ecology, systems theory and Buddhist traditions, the WTR helps people take part in the epochal shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. It is a style of group work (usually shared in workshop settings) that uses experiential activities to help participants connect with one another and with the intelligence, self-healing powers of life. The goal of the WTR is to “enliven” and motivate participants to play an active role in the creation of a life sustaining society. Cara first encountered this work in workshops within the Jewish environmental community. She joined the Earth Leadership Cohort in September 2014 and began to immerse herself in Macy’s four-stage spiral of gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes and going forth.
“Joanna Macy founded this work in the 60s and 70s to create space for people to feel the grief that came up in the age of nuclear activity,” says Cara. “What she found was that when people delved into their despair in a well-facilitated process, they began to discover wellsprings of hope. She was able to dive into these places with people and reemerge with more powerful tools for personal and collective transformation.”
Understanding anti-Jewish Oppression
“I’m presently in a pretty deep process of understanding anti-Jewish oppression, how it shapes the world that I live in, and how I’ve internalized it. Day to day I live very comfortably. I’m openly Jewish – personally and professionally. No swastikas are painted on my house, my business isn’t being burned, my family isn’t being threatened. But just because anti-Jewish oppression isn’t overtly visible in my day-to-day life doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
When we think of oppression, we often think of poverty, labor exploitation, mass incarceration. Anti-Jewish oppression generally looks different. Jews have historically been allowed by dominant groups to be just successful enough that they maintain an appearance – and to varying extents throughout history, a reality of – power and privilege. Then, when it serves dominant groups, Jews are scapegoated and blamed for overarching societal problems. This is where ideas like “global Jewish domination,” “greedy and wealthy,” and “killers of God” come into play, and the phenomenon has occurred over and over throughout history. Oppression doesn’t go away until and unless there is a massive social movement to transform its underpinnings. Just seventy years ago, one in three Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Was there a subsequent mass movement to transform the anti-Semitism that provoked my people’s slaughter? If so, I missed it.”
Crafting a Freedom Seder around the Work that Reconnects, and the four questions of W.E.B. DuBois
In early 2016, Cara received an email asking for suggestions for kicking off a Work That Reconnects retreat with a Passover seder. The compatibility of the four traditional cups of wine and the four stations of the spiral immediately inspired Cara with ideas and a desire to lead the ritual. Cara had two goals in compiling the Work That Reconnects Passover Seder: 1) providing integrity for the Jewish community whose cultural tradition the seder is based in; and 2) using the broader themes of liberation and oppression to make it accessible to the interfaith and Work That Reconnects community.
“The Passover seder is more than a ritual recitation of a story. It is meant to be a visceral experience in which participants go into ancestral memories and bodily experiences of slavery and liberation. One of the ways we do this is by asking questions,” Cara says. “Critical questioning enables us go deeper into the societal and spiritual structures that hold us back, that divide us, that create oppression hierarchies in the first place.”
In order to meaningfully address current systems of oppression, Cara integrated into the seder a speech she attended by Cornel West on the four questions that civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois wrestled with: How shall integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?
The result was a ritual in which Jews could feel the presence of their ancient tradition, and all in attendance were invited to delve into their own narratives of grief and gratitude, oppression and liberation, resistance and resilience. Cara says, “I hope people will use this seder as a launch point for their own community explorations, and make it their own.”
Cara Michelle Silverberg works in the field of youth leadership and environmental and social justice programs, with a focus in Jewish and interfaith community building. She is pursuing a Master of Arts in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. You can contact her on LinkedIn or follow her blog: onthefringesofplace.com
The interview with Cara, and initial draft of this article, was conducted/created by Margo Mallar, a member of the staff at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. Many thanks to Mara for her contributions to the site!
The Earth Leadership Cohort is an immersion in the Work That Reconnects for young folks age 18-30, and was an important piece of Cara’s process in creating the WTR Passover Seder. If you are interested in participating in the 2017 cohort, you can view the complete announcement here.