Story of freedom crosses boundaries

Youth consider modern plagues

After sundown today, people of the Jewish faith will celebrate Passover.

It is the beginning of an eight-day holiday that remembers how the ancient Jews were freed from the oppression of slavery in Egypt.

The story of their path to freedom is told in the Haggadah, a Jewish text read at the Passover Seder. It includes the story of the 10 plagues that the Egyptians experienced when Pharaoh refused Moses’ request to let the people go so they could worship God.

Locally, youth in the Jewish Sunday school classes considered the 10 plagues and what modern forms of oppression affect society today.

The Sunday school is a partnership of Agudath Achim Congregation, Temple Beth Israel and the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, spiritual leader of the Temple, and Bill Wallen, executive director of the federation, facilitated the class where students in grades 4 to 11 proposed 10 modern plagues.

Korotkin pointed out that although Pharaoh alone made the choice to not let the Israelites go, the plagues were imposed on all Egyptians.

“Everybody was affected,” she said. “The water became undrinkable, weather disruptions destroyed crops, animals died and eventually, children lost their lives.”

Other plagues affect our world today, she said.

Korotkin said some are man-made and some are natural, adding that human beings sometimes have a role in the natural plagues that threaten the health, well-being and lives of people.

The 10 modern plagues that the students offered were: poverty, lack of education, xenophobia and anti-immigration bias, climate change, violence, prejudice and racism, physical and mental illness, pollution, drug abuse and food insecurity.

“The students are very knowledgeable of the world around them,” Korotkin said, adding that they are aware of bullying, drug abuse and that students may lack the resources to obtain higher education.

Wallen said the students are concerned about the modern plagues and have a desire to make the world a better place. He said the Torah teaches about social justice and loving one’s neighbor.

Every year at Passover, Jews recall the story of freedom. It is a story that others identify with — including the original organizers of the Civil Rights Movement and the Pilgrims, who were fleeing religious persecution in Europe, Wallen said.

Cantor Ben Matis, spiritual leader of Agudath Achim Congregation, said Passover is the redemption model for Jewish people and the world and celebrates the foundation of the Jewish nation.

At the original Passover, “God directly inserted himself into history,” Matis said.

As Jews celebrate their ancestors’ freedom, table talk may include discussions about the modern plagues the Sunday school students have identified.

Korotkin said at the Temple’s community Passover meal, families will be encouraged to discuss the modern plagues and consider ways to help eliminate them. Wallen said, his family also will talk about them at their Seder.

The discussions “are a reminder that we can never fully be free or redeemed as long as there are such plagues in the world,” Korotkin said.

Matis said it is important to understand that there are problems in the world, and Judaism works to make things better.

“Social consciousness is an important part of the Jewish tradition,” he said.

The hope for the end to oppression and plagues is what Matis calls the best part of the Seder.

“People often miss it,” he said.

The celebration ends with songs, one being a cumulative folk song called “Chad Gadya.”

In the lyrics, a goat is eaten by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is beaten by a stick, which is burned by fire and on it goes.

Matis said it represents stages of history. But eventually, the lyrics say God kills the angel of death.

“It tells of the Messianic Era (a time of peace) and is very powerful,” Matis said.