This Is What a Passover Seder at a Mosque Looks Like

At a Manhattan celebration, rabbis and an imam welcome New York’s ‘beautiful, diverse society’

The 200-strong crowd at the Seder in a Mosque, New York, April 6, 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK It was possibly the least likely place ever in which Passover’s Four Questions have been sung. Thursday night about 200 people Jews, Muslims, Christians and some with no religious identification at all gathered in midtown Manhattan for the second annual Seder in a Mosque.

Organized by the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee in cooperation with the mosque and four area synagogues, people of all ages filled the space to overflowing. Most sat on the floor around picnic blankets laid over the mosque’s soft carpet, while others sat on chairs along the walls. The blankets were covered with Passover’s ritual seder foods.  

Sheikh Ahmed Dewida of the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan welcomed people to his house of worship with the phrase: “This beautiful, diverse society despite differences in race, religion and ethnicity, this is New York.”

For synagogue clergy to organize the seder in his mosque “shows the wisdom of God,” he said. Imam Dewida noted that “the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, is mentioned 165 times in the Koran. The Prophet Mohammed, who received our Koran, is mentioned only five times.”

At the mosque, which occupies four floors of a nondescript building on East 55th Street, the atmosphere was warm and festive.

Local synagogue clergy who led the service included Rabbi Kerry Chaplin of independent Lab/Shul, Rabbi Allison Tick Brill of Reform Congregation Emanu-El, Rabbi Benjamin Spratt and Cantor Shayna De Lowe of Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom, and Jewish educator Tehilah Eisenstadt of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist congregation.

Participants at the second annual Seder in a Mosque, New York, April 6, 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Each led a different part of the service, from blessing the four cups of wine and Elijah’s cups, to singing “Avadim Hayinu” (“We Were Slaves”), exploring the Four Questions and explaining the 10 plagues and why Jews traditionally remove a drop of wine from their cups for each one in between.

Participants were invited to briefly delve into each of the Four Questions. Rabbi Chaplin invited the guests to think about what “narrow place” in life each had struggled through. She connected the seder’s central theme to participants’ current experiences.

“The Exodus is happening in our lives” right now, she said. “It’s not just a distant idea, but is proximate. And it’s ours.”

Robin Bossert, in his early 60s, attended the seder out of love for interfaith events. A Unitarian and producer of corporate videos, Bossert grew up in a family that rejected religion entirely, though his mother was Jewish and his father Christian.

When he was 40, he began hungering for the fellowship and connection that come with belonging to a house of worship, he said, so he joined one of Manhattan’s three Unitarian churches. He sometimes gets invited to Passover seders by Jewish friends. “We Unitarians celebrate everything” from every religion, he joked, “but none of them well.”

Angy Shavit, 24, came to the Seder in a Mosque after seeing it listed on MeetUp, which she usually scans looking for vegan gatherings.

Imam Ahmed Dewida of the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan at the Seder in a Mosque, April 6, 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Shavit is an Israeli citizen who recently moved to New York for graduate school in cybersecurity after serving in the Israeli army and earning a college degree in Israel. Raised by Israeli parents in the Orthodox enclaves of Borough Park, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, New Jersey, she moved back to Israel at 18. During her army service in Gaza and afterward, while spending time in the West Bank, she made many Palestinian friends and came to view the occupation as “ridiculous,” she said.

She came to the Seder in a Mosque “because it’s a way of showing solidarity between the two communities,” she told Haaretz.

Most seders end with the singing of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” but on East 55th Street it was the penultimate offering the celebration concluded with the entire crowd singing Bob Marley’s reggae classic “One Love.”

That was right in line with the approach Imam Dewida likes to take, he said. “As long as we love each other and find a way to have a peaceful society, that’s fine with me.”