(From left) musician Jonathan Bayer, San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and San Francisco Mayor London Breed at the JCRC Freedom Seder in San Francisco, April 3, 2023. (Photo/Anastasiia Sapon-JCRC)
(From left) musician Jonathan Bayer, San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and San Francisco Mayor London Breed at the JCRC Freedom Seder in San Francisco, April 3, 2023. (Photo/Anastasiia Sapon-JCRC)

Mayors, supervisors and a drag queen take center stage at JCRC Freedom Seder

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It was a who’s-who of the Bay Area Jewish community and friends when JCRC Bay Area presented its 27th annual Freedom Seder on Monday night in San Francisco. Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Rafael Mandelman co-led the event, which included speeches from San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Jewish drag queen Poly Poptart and others.

Held in City Hall for the first time in its long history, the seder brought about 250 guests from different Bay Area communities for dinner, drinks and celebration at the venerable building. The event, as it does every year, aimed to build bridges.

JCRC CEO Tye Gregory opened by reminding those gathered what brought them together.

“The ancient story of the Israelites, the story of bondage to freedom, resonates to this very day,” Gregory said.

The first Freedom Seder, held on April 4, 1969, was organized by the Black and Jewish communities of Washington, D.C., on the one-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Gregory told the audience. Since then, similar seders have been held in cities across the country. Monday’s event was held in the spirit of that first celebration 54 years ago, which aimed to bring together two disparate communities with much in common, he said.

“San Francisco is a beacon of hope and a beacon of freedom to so many communities,” Gregory said. “We’re going to recognize all the communities fighting for freedom to this day.”

Melgar and Mandelman presided over the celebration, which brought rabbis, local officials and Jewish community members to the stage to read parts of the haggadah. Laura Lauder, former chair of the S.F.-based Federation’s Endowment Committee, lit the candles. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín stepped up to lead Kiddush. Philanthropist Moses Libitzky read the Four Questions to the crowd.

Guests enjoyed a vegetarian and “kosher-style” dinner while sharing a communal seder plate over the course of the night. Wine, and sparkling water for those abstaining, flowed freely.

Breed took to the mic to announce her participation in a trip to Israel with the JCRC in early May that will celebrate 50 years of the San Francisco–Haifa Sister City relationship. The mayor expressed her admiration for the JCRC, which she said has stood in solidarity with the African American and Asian communities for a long time.

“What I appreciate is that we continue to come together in the spirit of love, in the spirit of community, in the spirit of togetherness,” Breed said.

Next year at this time, may everyone, everywhere, be free.

In response to the rising tide of bans on drag storytelling events across the nation, Portland-area drag queen Poly Poptart read a rhyming version of the maggid, the story portion of the seder. She also took a moment to speak about the backlash against drag performances and arguments that they expose children to “adult” themes.

“Every parent has the freedom to choose whether a drag show is right for their kid, but no parent has the freedom to decide whether a drag show is right or wrong for all kids,” Poly Poptart said.

In between speakers, the room filled with noisy conversation. Guests wandered between tables, greeting friends and making introductions. When the talk spilled over into the next speech, Mandelman would implore people to “shush,” with varying degrees of success. Throughout the night, local musician Jonathan Bayer led the crowd in lively song, singing “Hinei Ma Tov” toward the end of the night.

At the seder’s conclusion, Melgar and Mandelman did not say “Next year in Jerusalem,” as is customary. Instead, Melgar led the crowd in a closing mantra:

“May slavery give way to freedom, may hate give way to love, may ignorance give way to wisdom, may despair give way to hope. Next year at this time, may everyone, everywhere, be free.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.