Rabbi José Rolando Matalon, senior rabbi of B'nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street and the synagogue’s spiritual leader for a quarter century. Photo courtesy of B'nai Jeshurun
“Freedom is possible,” said Rabbi José Rolando Matalon in a synopsis of the Passover message that a people of faith, with divine guidance, can defy their oppressor and be emancipated from bondage.
And the lute-playing, Buenos Aires-born senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street, the synagogue’s spiritual leader for the past 25 years, added a cautionary note: “But it’s not easy.”
“Love wins!” said the Rev. Dr. Cathy S. Gilliard in a classic two-word encapsulation of the Easter message of hope and new life and how it can overpower pain and sorrow and even death itself.
And the senior pastor of the Park Avenue United Methodist Church on East 86th Street, the first African-American to hold that position, quickly added a two-word coda: “Exclamation point!”
Due to a quirk in the religious calendar, the two hallowed institutions — a temple founded in 1825, a church established in 1837 — are about to observe, at the same time but in their own very separate ways, one of the great defining holidays of their respective faiths.
Good Friday, which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus at Calvary, falls on March 30, and this year it coincides with Passover, marking the liberation by God of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, which begins at sundown the same day with the first of the two Seders.
For Christians, the holiday is a day of fasting and penance, and for Jews, a time to tell the story of the Exodus through stories, songs and a ritual if festive meal, which is repeated in the second Seder on March 31.
Easter Sunday, a joyous celebration of the cornerstone of Christianity — the resurrection of Jesus from the dead — falls on April 1, which is also the second full day of the week-long Passover holiday.
Theologically, the holidays would seem to have little in common. Culinarily, they both involve feasting.
But there’s more: Mortal enemies of both faiths fall — Pharaoh’s army is obliterated, the Israelites, no longer slaves, cross the Red Sea dry-shod, Roman prefects are humiliated, Jesus prepares to ascend to heaven — and as miracles unfold and good vanquishes evil, the redemptive power of God reigns supreme.
“As people of faith, we live with hope and not despair –— hope for our personal life, but also for our world,” the Rev. Gilliard said.
“We move from death to life, from darkness and despair to light, as we take our place amongst those who live in the world and try to do the things that Christ would have us do,” she added. “The message of the cross is that the love God is displaying wins out over all the other stuff we see in the world!”PLAGUES FROM THE OVAL OFFICE
That world can be a pretty oppressive place in the Trump era, say at least a dozen ministers, priests and rabbis interviewed by Straus News. Though few mentioned the president by name, most alluded to issues on his watch they found troubling, many of which will be incorporated into the holiday messaging.
“We live in very challenging, some would say dark, times,” said Rabbi Matalon. “We are in danger of the erosion of some of our liberties.”
He cited an “assault on truth, an assault on science, an assault on the legal system itself,” as well as “racism, sexism and homophobia.”
Recounting how Moses, acting upon the instructions of God, defied the tyranny of Pharaoh with the words, “Let my people go,” the rabbi said, “Oppressive structures have to be defied and removed.” And he added, “Freedom is an act of faith, an act of defiance and an act of courage.”
It was 3,500 years ago when Moses parted the Red Sea to usher the Israelites out of Egypt, and the Passover holiday has remained largely unchanged over the passing millennia.
“There is great comfort in the consistency of that ritual,” said Rabbi Diana Fersko, associate rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th Street, which was the first shul in the city to install a female rabbi.
“But this year, it might feel a bit more charged because of how fragile our freedoms seem right now,” she said. In a time in which the Jewish people “rejoice in our freedoms, we are also thinking about control over information, control over privacy, control over our bodies, and suddenly, our freedoms seem in real jeopardy,” the rabbi added.
Rabbi Alvin Kass, the chief chaplain of the NYPD and a 52-year veteran of the department who once helmed the New York Board of Rabbis, has his own take on “the edge and the bitterness” he observes today.
“We haven’t seen this in a very long time, and it’s very disturbing,” said the rabbi, an Upper West Sider who serves as spiritual director of the NYPD Shomrim Society, made up of 3,000 active and retired Jewish cops.
“It’s important to understand, on this holiday of freedom, how easily freedom can be lost all over the world – and to know that the spirit of totalitarianism must be resisted,” he added. “In this country, which is so diverse, we need to forge a bond of togetherness and join with those with whom we don’t share common ancestry.”THE POWER AND THE GLORY
Meanwhile, at the Church of the Epiphany on York Avenue and 74th Street, the Rev. Jennifer Reddall will take her text from the Gospel of Mark, which ends with the words, “They were afraid.”
“You don’t get to see Jesus, who doesn’t appear, you’re left with an empty tomb, and an angel who says he’s been raised, but you don’t get to see him raised, and you’re left with fear,” she said.
The message? “God is challenging us to have faith — even in the midst of fear,” the rector of the Episcopal church explained. “It’s about what do we do in a time of fear, for even when you’re afraid, you still have to go out and seek Jesus, because it is okay to be afraid, but it doesn’t make us immobile or paralyzed.”
Is she referencing the current political climate? “It’s a possibility to say that ... I sometime make oblique connections. There are so many things that people are afraid of right now.”
Yes, there are, and the Rev. Robert Brashear, pastor of the West-Park Presbyterian Church on West 86th Street since 1995, ticked off a few of them, citing, “Fear of the other, fear of people who are different, fear of people who look different, fear of people who come from different places.”
Will the reverend address the perceived source of those fears on Easter Sunday? “If I’m having a conversation from the pulpit, I’d talk about ethics and values and principles,” he said. “If I’m having a conversation over a beer, I would name Trump.”
Of course, there are traditionalists who steer clear of any political messages, like Father Douglas Crawford, the former priest-secretary of the late Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York.
“In giving His life for us, Our Lord Jesus asks us to continue His mission by being His ‘hands and feet,’ the priest said. “He asks us to share in his work of redemption.
“That is why the Gospel is never simply a call to be ‘nice’ to other people. There is nothing sweetly sentimental about Calvary. Life in Christ is a call to unselfish love. If we want to rise with Our Saviour at Easter, we also have to share his work of salvation on Good Friday,” he added.
More than ever, this Easter season is a time to remain true to one’s faith, said the Rev. Stephen Harding, pastor of the 180-year-old St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on West 20th Street in Chelsea.
“We need an alternative and a moral compass because in our country, the current administration is abdicating the moral high ground,” he said. “It is on us to respect the dignity of every human being and stay true to our core values of decency, honor and compassion.”
And the reverend added, “We have an obligation to the world because in some sense, we are all citizens of the world.”