Themes of oppression, affliction, soul-searching and liberation hold great importance in the Passover story, one that recounts the Jewish people’s escape from bondage, their exodus from Egypt and their eventual freedom.
As we prepare to revisit and recount that story of Passover — a time during which, among many observances, we’re encouraged to question the present and learn from the past — the JT staff crafted four questions that delve into some contemporary implications of the holiday.
How does OPPRESSION manifest itself today?
At first blush, one might think it’s humans who are slaves to our electronic devices, whether by constantly checking email on a phone, updating a Facebook status or sending a text.
Amy Webb, author, futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute, which researches emerging technologies for companies and organizations around the world, claims just the opposite is true. And that truth comes with a warning.
“There is no question. We are the masters and the devices are our slaves. But you can’t have that conversation without having some context and also talk about artificial intelligence,” she said, citing “smart houses” with programmable lights, thermostats, dishwashers, coffeemakers and more. In some cases, “this is technology that we’ve humanized [even in] the way that it looks and responds to us and even the names we’ve given it.”
For a ubiquitous example, think Siri — the friendly voice that responds to requests when spoken into an iPhone.
“A lot of the newer technologies have artificial intelligence, and we’re training the AI as we use it,” Webb explained. “[Devices] must have huge data sets and be in use in order for them to learn” and serve more accurately and efficiently.
Case in point, Webb said, is Amazon’s Echo, also called Alexa, a speech-recognition driven module that can be commanded to play music, retrieve weather reports, read audiobooks and even provide a sports score. Alexa, according to its description, is “always getting smarter and adding new features and skills — over 100 added since its launch, including [calling upon] Domino’s Pizza and Uber.”
But the outcome of Microsoft’s recently released chat bot named Tay, a computer program designed to simulate conversation with humans, especially over the internet, is where the warning comes in.
“It took less than  hours for the chat bot to start making incredibly anti-Semitic (and racist and sexist) remarks and saying things about Hitler,” said Webb. “It was because these bots are programmed to [repeat and] respond to us. And as it turns out, humans can be pretty horrible teachers. We can say some pretty horrible things.”
Tay has since been silenced.
“The challenge is when the algorithms a machine is learning uses that data and incorporates it into its overall learning,” Webb said, who employs technology, including a telepresence robot (a screen on wheels that can be controlled remotely to allow interaction with humans) to streamline her life.
“The truly terrifying thing is that as our devices become smarter and more capable of servicing our needs, they will necessarily have to start making decisions without us, supposedly in our best interests,” she said. “But what happens when the machines decide we’re not treating them well? Suddenly — and I’m not exaggerating when I say this — you could many years from now be facing a crisis that really is of the proportions that were described in the Bible.”
— Melissa Gerr
What PLAGUES the Jewish community?
The Jewish people are a demonstrably resilient group, in part due to overcoming such obstacles as oppression in ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany.
But there are still challenges that both the Baltimore Jewish community and Jews around the world must work to overcome on a daily basis.
“We must never forget the Holocaust and what happened to us,” said Arthur Abramson, departing executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “But our strength lies in what we are now, not what we were then.”
Abramson said victimization is one of a handful of issues plaguing the Jewish community. He emphasized that Jews and the State of Israel are not the same as they were 10, 15 or 50 years ago. To the extent that “we try to fall back on that [mentality], it diminishes our effectiveness” when trying to overcome problems.
In a similar vein, he said the Jewish experience should teach us how crucial it is to stand up for “the other.”
“We are often forgetting where we come from,” said Abramson. “We must very clearly be involved when Muslims are attacked and other groups are attacked. We cannot afford to simply ignore it when it’s someone else.”
Ashley Pressman, executive director of Jewish Volunteer Connection, is concerned about a trend toward isolation among senior citizens in Baltimore’s Jewish community. It’s a problem that happens gradually, she said, and isn’t always obvious. She added it requires proactive responses to prevent it from happening.
Pressman also cited “indifference” as a current societal problem.
“We’re so busy with our own lives and the stimuli that we get that we no longer see the other,” she said. “[It’s important] for each of us to recognize our neighbors and see our neighbors in all of their complexity and nuance, not just [think it’s] us and them.”
Though not solely a Jewish or Baltimore issue, Pressman said that “the world as a whole benefits when people come into conversation with each other.”
— Justin Katz
What are you SEARCHING for?
Jewish teenagers who consider themselves “too old” for the custom of the afikomen hunt find themselves searching for something much deeper as they transition into the next chapter of their lives.
“As a Jewish teenager,” said Lea Glazer, a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, “I am searching for my role in Jewish society … for my own personal way to impact the world at large … for what I was meant to do and [for] how to use everything I’ve learned from my Jewish education to better the world.”
Referencing tikkun olam, repairing the world, Glazer also expressed her hope of “finding a way to personally fulfill this mitzvah and to make a difference in the world, no matter how large or small it is.”
Whereas Glazer aspires to find her place in Jewish society, Mia Kaufman, a Franklin High School senior and an active member of United Synagogue Youth, strives to become more globally aware.
“I am searching for a greater connection with people that are not just in the Baltimore area,” she said. “Being involved in many Jewish organizations such as USY has helped me to do just that and has given me those connections around the world.”
During Kaufman’s quest to understand the global community, she encountered some opposition to her viewpoints that have exposed her to the world outside the Jewish Baltimore bubble.
“I often run into news about Israel, which hits closer to home as a Jew,” she said. “I am constantly hit with the reality that the global community is not as big of an Israel fanatic as I am.”
Though Glazer and Kaufman are currently involved in the Jewish community, as graduation approaches, both students have begun to consider how they will continue their search without built-in Judaism being a “given.”
“When I go to college next year, I will be faced with the challenge of maintaining my Judaism in a new, diverse environment,” Glazer said. “I will have to actively seek out events and organizations that will allow me to stay connected with my religion.”
Glazer also plans to do this by participating in the University of Maryland College Park’s Hillel, joining a pro-Israel club on campus and visiting Israel on a Birthright trip.
Kaufman, who will attend the University of Maryland, College Park, plans to be involved with organized Jewish activities on campus and also hopes “to live in Israel for an extended period of time and definitely do some form of Israel advocacy, working or volunteering” throughout life.
— Meital Abraham
What does liberation mean?
For Rabbi Geoff Basik of Kol HaLev Synagogue, the idea of exodus or liberation in 2016 is a more universal concept rather than one focused on the individual. “The community silos we [keep ourselves] in are all interconnected,” he argued, citing the late Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
“Rather than tell the tale about our particular success vis-à-vis other people, winners and losers, us versus them, friends and enemies, I think we’re all caught in the systemic oppressions,” he explained.
He looks at recent events as examples, locally and globally, in how the situation in Syria affected Brussels and the world at large and how what happens in Baltimore City affects the suburbs.
There’s a debate in the Talmud, Basik said, about the Ten Plagues, where some rabbis say there were 50 or even 200 to “really stick it” to the Egyptians.
“[But] our joy is diminished because Egyptians were suffering, so you [take] the drop out of your wine glass. So these [concepts] represent these two polarities with human beings, the personal versus the public,” he said. “So the ‘pour out thy wrath upon thine enemies’ at the end of the seder is not a message for today. It’s more, I think, about universal healing as opposed to one people’s liberation alone.”
For Nancy Aiken, executive director of CHANA, the universality of the Passover story hits home with what her clients go through. The organization offers support for victims of physical, psychological, sexual and financial abuse.
After the Israelites leave Egypt — and are free from slavery — they actually consider going back because of uncertainty about the future. Similarly, some of CHANA’s clients consider returning — and some do — to awful, sometimes life-threatening situations because of fears and ambiguity associated with the future.
“The story of Exodus really teaches us that it’s almost normal, it’s natural to consider an awful situation as an alternative because at least you knew it, it was familiar. … When you leave and go forward, you’re scared,” she said. “The Israelites kept going because God gave them manna and took care of the hunger at least. I’d like to say CHANA is that manna.”
She said the story also speaks to the emotional, not just the physical, side of enslavement and abuse in that the Israelites went on their journey even when it meant food and water might be scarce and shelter wouldn’t be ideal.
“Sometimes our clients, like the Israelites, their exodus is to get away from the emotional, psychological abuse even if it means they’re going to be homeless or hungry or unsettled for a while,” she said. “They willingly accept those challenges in order to have emotional, spiritual, psychological peace of mind.”
— Marc Shapiro
These are just a few interpretations of contemporary themes, of course. And since questioning, discussion and debate are so integral to our Passover observance and who we are as Jews, please let us know what subjects arise during the conversations around your seder table.