The question, “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot? Why is this night different from all other nights?” is perhaps the most well-known component of a seder, where Jewish families gather to tell the Magid, the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
It is a story of a journey from bondage and slavery to hope of freedom and a promised land.
To tell this story, we must travel back in time while reflecting on our present—and our future. We internalize the struggles of our ancestors as our own while also giving thanks for the freedom we enjoy today and recognizing how precarious and unequal these freedoms are.
For so many of us, the second pandemic Passover might bring a fifth question: Why has this year been so different from all other years? At first glance, a global pandemic creates conditions to bring us all together: the shared experiences of social distancing, fear for our personal health and that of our families, financial insecurity, and a loss of the world as we know it. Yet when this crisis fades to a memory, the imprint it will have had on history will go well beyond the unfathomable loss of life.
In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the stark injustices inherent in our treatment of communities based on the color of their skin, immigration status, and class. Even a mutating virus has understood the system of segregation still dominating our country. As early as April 2020, three weeks after the economy came to a standstill, Massachusetts reported huge disparities in rates of infection, hospitalization, and COVID-linked deaths between people of color and immigrants and white residents. Structural racism, segregation, lack of transportation, and high incarceration rates limit testing and treatment, thereby increasing illness and death.
We—the Jewish community—cannot accept these injustices.
That’s why CJP has partnered with six other Greater Boston-based nonprofits to address the injustices in vaccination efforts and help overcome hesitation over receiving the vaccination. The $4.35 million COVID-19 Vaccine and Recovery Fund for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers seeks to address the most vulnerable and vaccine-hesitant residents and helps support social and economic recoveries that will further promote equity across Boston and Massachusetts.
As my colleague Amanda Hadad, CJP’s associate vice president of caring and social justice, noted: “This pandemic has reminded us time and again that while we all might be in the same storm, we are definitely not in the same boat. CJP cannot accept the funding inequities that created the health disparities so clearly exposed by this pandemic.”
This work is not new to us. Just four Passovers ago, we faced the need to act against injustice. CJP launched our CJP Legal Aid Fund for Immigrants in response to cruel practices inflicted on new arrivals to the United States here in Boston and around the country. Within just three weeks, we raised over $700,000 from hundreds of donors, all of whom wanted the Jewish community to proudly stand for the Jewish imperative to “welcome the stranger.” Since then, we have worked to build a social justice portfolio at CJP, prioritizing work in the broader community that supports the needs of the Jewish community and engaging in equity-based, systemic change-focused funding in the broader world that supports our community’s value of tzedek, or justice.
CJP is launching an Equity Task Force to better understand the ways in which uninformed assumptions about who our Jewish community includes have informed how we think and how we fund. The task force will reintroduce us to who we are as a community—demographically and psychographically—and will help us to better understand how we can ensure our grant-making and community support lifts up the many parts of our increasingly diverse and beautiful community.
This work, like the wandering of our ancestors, is a journey. There may be many destinations or detours. Along the way, we have—and will continue to—discover our own biases and our need to relearn what our Jewish community is and who is a part of it.
The launch of the COVID-19 Vaccine and Recovery Fund is another step in our journey toward being an active participant in equity funding here in Boston. We will not stand by as people are continuously marginalized by inequitable access to health and economic well-being. We believe that the Jewish community must be a voice against structural racism. We must speak out against the disproportionately negative impact COVID-19 has had on people of color and other marginalized populations across the state. We are proud to support community health centers, where more than half of the patients receiving their first vaccine have been people of color.
At our seder this year, perhaps many more of us will focus not on our own freedom, but instead on the ways in which our Jewish communities must actively work for freedom for all. And when we get to “Dayenu”—where we sing about all the gifts from God bestowed upon us—we will know that our work now is not enough. It is only the beginning of a journey.