Muslim leader calls for unity at S.F. interfaith seder

Calling his presence an act of "freedom," the director of interfaith relations for the United Muslims of America spoke out before more than 400 people at the sixth annual Freedom Seder Monday in San Francisco.

"All of us can choose whether or not to engage in stereotyping and blame," said Iftekhar Hai. "The Jewish community didn't have to invite me here, but they did. It's very meaningful for me to be invited here because the United States is at war with a Muslim country, and there is a lot of anti-Arab sentiment out there.

"I believe that being here at the Freedom Seder is a call for being united. Hopefully, everyone can see their own story in the light of freedom."

Organizers of the event, held at Congregation Beth Sholom, called the Freedom Seder crucial in light of escalating conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. Billed as "celebrating the quest for freedom that brings and binds us together," the seder explored those themes throughout the evening. Sponsored by the Isaiah Project, founded as a forum for black-Jewish dialogue, it featured spiritual and political leaders from a broad spectrum of ethnic and religious groups. The Isaiah Project is under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Much of the commentary preceding the Passover meal focused on the commonality among the various communities at the seder.

"We are living in very turbulent times," intoned Pastor Douglass Fitch of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church. "People are looking to be divisive, and there are certainly many moments that the African-American community and the Jewish community could have been ripped apart…and in some instances, our communities have been ripped apart.

"There are perhaps far more questions than answers, but I would urge all of us to take a look around and witness how many instances there are of slavery and liberation in this very room."

Dorothy Richman, Beth Sholom's assistant rabbi, referred obliquely to the conflict in the Middle East several times during the seder, although she stopped short of any direct mention of the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.

"Sometimes, looking at difficulties can be a form of freedom over oppression," said Richman, who later led attendants in chanting a revised version of the Ten Plagues. Added to the list of traditional plagues such as frogs, locusts and the smiting of the firstborn, were modern-day scourges such as AIDS, homelessness, racism and homophobia.

Just when the list seemed to be interminable, someone from the audience suggested "George W. Bush" as an addition to the litany, which resulted in loud titters.

More serious political themes were also explored, however. Miguel Bustos of the California Civil Rights Network told the crowd that the night of the seder marked the late labor leader Caesar Chavez's 75th birthday. He asked the audience to remember the farm workers who picked the fruits and vegetables they were currently eating.

Phil Teng, a representative from the Asian community, commented on the historical significance of Angel Island, which he said was often overlooked as a prominent gateway to the United States for Asians. And Sarosh Kumana, the director of the Affordable House Ownership Alliance, posited that freedom is inextricably linked to income and property.

"Studies have shown that true freedom can occur only when one has economic freedom. And that is something that often comes with home ownership. And yet, only 34 percent of San Franciscans can afford to own their homes, as opposed to 68 percent in most other big cities," said Kumana.

"For this seder to have real significance, I would urge that the people attending tonight go out and let their actions speak louder than words," he added, saying that an affordable home-ownership initiative will be on the November ballot.