Social Justice Seder Teaches about Water Inequality

Attendees of the Water Justice Seder stand for the lighting of the candles. (Victoria Brown)

Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) and Chevrei Tzedek Congregation used the Seder as a time to reflect on modern injustices and what can be done about them on Sunday March 31 at their Water Justice Seder.

Begun in 2014 and now in its fifth year, the social justice Seder picks a new issue to highlight each year. Organizers write a unique and relevant Haggadah, plan an action attendants can take during the Seder to further the cause and arrange for speakers to elaborate on the personal and policy levels of the issue.

This year, JUFJ’s Seder focused on water justice. Water prices in Baltimore have increased drastically since the 2002 agreement between Baltimore City and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandating updates to city water infrastructure. “Over the next three years, the cost of water will increase 30 percent for Baltimore residents. In Baltimore County, rates have been rising for years and are expected to increase another 40 percent in five years,” write the organizers in the Seder Haggadah.

Beyond rising prices, some people are receiving incorrect water bills, often far inflated over their actual water usage. Kimberly M. Armstrong is a sustainability and professional development expert and trainer and has experienced her home being put up for tax sale three times since 2014 while she fought unfair water bills.

Armstrong spoke about the lack of due process through the Department of Public Works (DPW) for disputing unfair water bills. She further argued that the DPW is contributing to homelessness by causing people’s homes to be put in tax sale due to unpaid water bills that are sometimes as low at $750. “You cannot say you are a city that wants to prevent homelessness and then have a system that creates homelessness,” Armstrong said, challenging the city’s self-image of addressing homelessness.

Senator Mary Washington spoke about the two bills in Baltimore that, if passed, will make water more affordable and the system more equal.

The Water Accountability and Equity Act would create an income-based water system that kept prices per household under 3 percent of total household income. It would also create a formal dispute process through which people could contest unfair water bills.

The Water Taxpayer Protection Act would keep people from losing their homes due to unaffordable or incorrect water bills by preventing the DPW or the city from selling homes in tax sales for unpaid water bills.

The Seder began with a candle lighting and soon progressed to a table discussion about a text from the Torah. Different guests involved in the process of creating the Seder and JUFJ’s work read aloud from the text of the Haggadah. It wove together the story of the Jew’s escape from Egypt and the modern issue of water justice, “Midrash teaches us that, in desperation, the enslaved Israelites took essential supplies from their master before fleeing from Mitzrayim [Egypt]. Water is unaffordable for too many Baltimoreans,” the Haggadah read.

Notably, for each glass of wine—or more realistically, grape juice—people were instructed to do something specific with their glasses to signify the intention of that cup. For the first cup, one person raised their glass high above everyone else (unaffordability). For the second, everyone raised their glass “just as we must rise to response to the call to advocate” (right to due process). The third glass was held over each person’s head with both hands to signify a roof (the sanctity of home). Finally, the fourth glass had everyone join hands and glasses in a circle around the table to connect everyone as they do when they hold hands to ask for health (human health).

Near the end of the Seder, there was time set aside for attendees to write letters to Mayor Catherine Pugh, telling of their own experiences with water injustice and imploring Pugh to support and pass both water fairness bills currently in government.

Many of the attendees were inspired by the cause and ready to take action. Naomi Cutler, who joined JUFJ last year after hearing about it through a classmate in an adult-education class, loves how the Haggadah follows the format of the Seder but focuses on issues where Jewish ethics come into play. “I like being involved in something where I feel like I can make a contribution,” Cutler said.

Joan Plisko, community sustainability director at Pearlstone Center, found the Seder informative and engaging. She said, “I think there’s some things I’ll bring to my own Seder.”

The Seder concluded with a song. A group of people gathered in an open space in the room, forming a circle and dancing. One dancer bounced a smiling toddler up and down in their arms as they moved clockwise to the music. As people filed out, volunteers collected the letters attendees had written in scrawling blue script. Just as they say at the end of the traditional Seder: next year, in Jerusalem. Next year, water access will be fair and equitable. Next year, there will be equality.


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