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At Freedom Seder, an ancient story of liberation feels universal

UMBC Hillel’s Freedom Seder, held on the third floor of the University Center, strayed a bit from the traditional Seder formula. Typically, a Passover Seder is a dinner during which families gather to retell the story of the Jews’ freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt, as recounted in the Book of Exodus.

But a Freedom Seder, an event first conceived as a way to bring together the struggles and experiences of the Jewish and African-American communities, uses the universal messages contained within the story of Passover to bring together diverse communities.

Rabbi Jeremy Fierstien, Director of Hillel and Chair of the Religious Council, says that the focus of a Freedom Seder is to use the story of Passover as a catalyst for conversation and to elevate the voices of community members, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. “That has become a national phenomenon, a national movement. Many places, many people, do different incarnations of this event,” Fierstien noted.

Though there have been Freedom Seders held on campus in previous years, Fierstien approached this year’s celebration with a particularly unique focus in mind. “The thing that I saw as a challenge was the siloed nature of our community,” he explains. “If you’re an engineer, you’re not really hanging out with other majors, because you’re so scheduled.” He wanted the Freedom Seder to be a space where students could cross those lines and hear the narratives of people with whom they may not be in frequent contact.

The event featured UMBC Hillel president and senior psychology major Dana Kobrin and senior statistics major Sean Bhatia as the emcees; they introduced the four speakers, each of whom spoke about their own personal struggles with oppression.

Having immigrated to America from India at the age of one, Swathi Prakash, a senior media and communications studies major, described the struggles of existing in a liminal space between American and Indian culture. Naqiya Ghulamali, a senior psychology major, spoke about her disabilities and the concept of hidden identities. Nikki Donboli, also a senior psychology major, discussed her family’s own exodus from Iran.

The final speaker was Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Associate Director of the Honors College. She recounted her memories of growing up with parents who did not shield her from the world’s unfairness, and how this drove her interest in activism. Kelber-Kaye particularly emphasized the necessity of those seeking change to work in tandem with one another: “It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about we. In we, we have hope, we have liberation, we have freedom.”

The crowd in attendance encompassed a vast array of people: students of all majors, Jewish and non-Jewish; faculty, staff and alumni; Hillel regulars and first time attendees. Talon Bevan, a senior chemistry major, has attended a number of Hillel events in the past, but was particularly struck by how well the Freedom Seder captured the spirit and vibrance of the UMBC community.

“We all have different stories,” she said. “Just speaking to people we know or see around campus, we get an idea of what their experiences are, and it’s very eye-opening.” Madeline Ross, a sophomore political science major, particularly enjoyed hearing how the themes of Passover could be woven into her peers’ personal narratives.

In planning the Freedom Seder, Kobrin’s goal was to create a space where marginalized groups could sit with one another, feel a sense of camaraderie and feel connected through the universality of the presenters’ stories. “Through this event, you heard four different speakers,” she said. “Their events were completely different, in terms of narratives, and yet you could relate to every single one.”