Passover is right around the corner, and as synagogues have been emptied and seders turned into virtual gatherings by the pandemic, the story of Exodus remains relevant.
Every year, the Jewish community marks Passover by remembering our bondage in Egypt and celebrating God’s liberation of the Jewish people. Repeating the seder each year, we narrate the Exodus to draw out its meaning and find fresh perspectives in our search for true freedom.
During this eight-day festival, kashrut laws become more intense. Observing the ancient period with sacrifice, we eat matzah, or unleavened bread, and avoid eating chametz (leaven or foods not kosher for Passover) to help us remember the days of bondage and sacrifice.
As we reflect back to learn from the Passover story and the plagues that God set upon the land, we are reminded of the modern plagues we face – such as anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-LGBTQ bigotry and much more – that still oppress many in the United States. That is why we must continue to take up the cause of all who face discrimination as we would our own.
There is a long history of Jewish Americans supporting civil rights movements, identifying through our own experience and cultural memory of marginalization. The logical alliance between Jewish Americans and African Americans has been particularly strong and is a source of personal inspiration for me: One of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, forged a close friendship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a vocal supporter of civil rights.
I serve as the senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, an important landmark in the history of our civil rights movement. It was here where Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the spiritual leader of the congregation, denounced segregation in his High Holy Days sermon in 1947 and where Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, one of the first vocal supporters of the LGBTQ community, was senior rabbi. I draw strength every day from serving a congregation with such a storied legacy.
I am proud that so many elected officials have established themselves as allies to the LGBTQ community and supporters of freedom by publicly pledging to support the Equality Act, a landmark bill that would update existing federal civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in virtually every aspect of American life.
Our work is not yet done, but the path forward is becoming increasingly illuminated for LGBTQ Americans. I urge Congress to prioritize the passage of LGBTQ-inclusive federal protections.
There is overwhelming consensus: America is ready for nationwide nondiscrimination protections that ensure our LGBTQ friends and family members are treated with dignity and respect, no matter what zip code they call home.
This Passover, as we embrace and preserve ritual, prayer and ceremony during another year of unusual circumstances, we must never forget our own plight in Egypt. We must continue to uphold justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown, and we must act. Rabbi Heschel’s remarks should serve as a stark reminder that “indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.”
There is significant common ground on LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. We have a historic opportunity to bring together the bipartisan support needed to pass a federal bill and deliver equality for all Americans.
Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate should come together on this issue as senators did 57 years ago, when they reached across the aisle and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s time for a bipartisan solution to the discrimination and marginalization that LGBTQ Americans experience because building a country where all of us can thrive free from discrimination isn’t just a liberal or conservative value – it’s an American value, focused on freedom and opportunity for all.
Rabbi Peter S. Berg is the senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta.