Ukraine's S.F.-based Consul General Dmytro Kushneruk speaking at the JCRC Freedom Seder.
Ukraine's S.F.-based Consul General Dmytro Kushneruk speaking at the JCRC Freedom Seder.

‘Pray for peace,’ says Ukrainian consul at Bay Area Freedom Seder

More than 200 people — including Dmytro Kushneruk, the S.F.-based consul general of Ukraine — came together Monday night at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for a social justice and human rights-focused Passover seder.

The Jewish Community Relations Council’s annual Freedom Seder, which for 26 years has brought people from various faiths and cultures together, was an opportunity to build bonds and strengthen allyship among the Bay Area’s diverse communities.

“The seder is about bringing everybody together and talking about our common issues,” said Tyler Gregory, CEO of the S.F.-based JCRC. “Our organization’s mission is to advance a just and secure society for us and our neighborhoods, and since [Jews] are just 2 percent [of the U.S. population], we’re not going to do that just ourselves. We need our neighbors.”

Held outdoors on the grounds of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, the event was JCRC’s first in-person Freedom Seder since 2019, due to the pandemic. It also was streamed live over Zoom.

Speakers and guest readers — including state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and state Assemblymember Kevin Mullin of the Peninsula — addressed cross-cultural issues such as the rise of antisemitic, anti-Asian and anti-Black hate crimes, recent anti-LGBTQ legislation, and reparations for slavery in America.

Speakers also reflected on how the story of Exodus relates to assisting modern-day refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine and elsewhere.

“We want to bring in the issues our neighbors are facing and tie them into our cultural-religious tradition of Passover,” Gregory noted.

At the seder, politicians, government officials, activists and foreign dignitaries were asked to participate in the retelling of the Passover story and how it connects to contemporary issues. Among them were Matan Zamir, deputy consul general from Israel based in San Francisco, and Julia Mates, the mayor of Belmont.

Along with the reciting of the Ten Plagues, Joshua Arbital, a graduate student at the University of San Francisco, added 10 modern plagues: economic injustice; voter suppression; barriers to health care; gun violence; climate change; attacks on reproductive rights; war and forced displacement; Covid-19; hate, bigotry and racism; and the broken criminal justice system.

Mary Jung, a former chair of the S.F. Democratic Party and a leader in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, related the struggles for liberation to the Passover tradition of breaking, and then reuniting, parts of the afikomen.

Tyler Gregory, CEO of the S.F.-based JCRC, at the Freedom Seder.
Tyler Gregory, CEO of the S.F.-based JCRC, at the Freedom Seder.

“Until these divided parts are made one again, our seder cannot conclude,” Jung said of the matzah. “Reuniting the afikomen symbolizes that it is in our power to make whole that which is broken, and to work towards bringing freedom to everyone in the world.”

The four cups of wine were dedicated not only to their traditional meanings, but also to the concepts of allyship between communities, identity, welcoming and reparations.

Eric McDonnell, chair of the African American Reparations Advisory Committee for the city and county of San Francisco, urged elected leaders in attendance to find the political and civic will to actually enact legislation to try to repair the harms of racism. As the chair of the advisory committee, McDonnell is currently working on a San Francisco reparations plan to advise the city Board of Supervisors and the mayor on actions to address discrimination and inequity in areas such as housing, education and transit. It will be released next year.

On the seder plate, not only were orange slices added, but sunflower seeds were there as well, to show solidarity with Ukraine during the Russian invasion as the sunflower, or soniashnyk in Ukrainian, is the national flower.

During his speech Kushneruk, who has served as consul general for Ukraine in San Francisco since June 2020, relayed reports of the Russian army massacring civilians, and urged action.

“During the Second World War, many nations showed their indifference, and wasted time to save the Jewish people,” he said. “Were they to react faster, maybe the consequences may not have been so awful for Jewish people. That’s what we need from the world right now.”

Kushneruk also spoke of the death of a 96-year-old Buchenwald concentration camp survivor, Boris Romantschenko, in Kharkiv last month during Russia’s shelling of that city.

“I urge all of you not to get tired of this war, not to be indifferent, not to take a position of neutrality,” he said. “Be open and strong in your support, because to win this war, to protect our independence, we need help with weapons, with stronger economic sanctions and humanitarian and sometimes financial help — and Ukrainians, Ukrainian people, will do the rest. We’ll protect Europe. We’ll protect freedom in the whole world. What we Ukrainians need the most is peace, and we pray for peace to come to Ukraine as soon as possible, and we ask you to pray, too.”

The emcees of the seder were Natasha Kehimkar, a JCRC board member, and Michael Pappas, executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Toward the end of the evening, Kehimkar noted how seders traditionally end.

“Many Jews close out their seders with saying, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem is the historical homeland of the Jewish people as well as [a holy site] for Christians and Muslims. It’s also an idea. It’s an idea of peace for a better world. Next year in Jerusalem, next year in hope.”

Sam Ribakoff

J. freelance reporter