Passover, Justice & the Death Penalty

Passover is another one of those Jewish holidays where “They tried to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat!” Seriously, it’s great food — at least it is in MY mom’s house, and I’m looking forward to it. What I’ve also come to look forward to are the discussions we have around justice issues.

The essential duty of Passover is to tell the story of how the Jewish people came into slavery and then how they came out of it. But it has always also been about community and those in need. “All who are hungry, let them come and eat” are words that will be said at every Seder, anywhere. There are match-up services to find Seders for people in need. Many times my family hosted people we had never met.

As I got older, we started using different Hagadot (plural of Hagada) the Passover story guide/prayer book. One version I like gets into comparisons and anecdotes related to the holocaust, but often we shifted into the relevance of pressing issues of the day. Tied up in the Passover experience are many themes that run concurrent with the struggles of today. Slavery still exists in various forms. Refugees and the right to flee persecution or simply to seek a better life seems always to be an issue. All that shifts are names, language, skin color, borders and regions, and the level of sincerity with which the party in power addresses it.

My day to day work is to abolish the death penalty. On April 19, 2000, I was getting out of the taxi from the airport and I saw mom come out onto the front porch, holding the newspaper. There was a huge photo of me being arrested the day before at the Governor’s mansion in Tennessee, protesting the execution of Robert Coe. That certainly led to interesting discussions at the Seder that night, as it did in 2004 when I brought with me one of the now 157 exonerated survivors of wrongful death sentences in the United States. Florida death row exoneree Juan Melendez, murder victim family member Bill Pelke and I were on a speaking tour across the county. Having a Catholic and a Baptist add to the conversation with their own very real stories of contemporary injustice made that year unforgettable for my family and our other guests. Another time we hosted a friend from Sri Lanka, a torture survivor and former prisoner of conscience, leading to similar memories. And the Passover story resonated with each of these men, too.

This year, my Seder table will be talking about the eight executions in Arkansas scheduled for next Monday, and what we can do to stop this unprecedented act of state violence on the last day of Passover.

Most people don’t get that deep at their Seders, and my family doesn’t do that every year. But in its essence, Passover is about justice. It’s about remembering what happened to us, and making sure that we do what we can to make sure such things don’t happen to others. Chag Sameach.

Abraham J. Bonowitz is co-director of and been a leading organizer of Jewish and other clergy leadership in successful campaigns to restrict and repeal the death penalty across the United States. Please click here to sign the petition to stop the eight executions starting Easter Monday in Arkansas.

This article was originally published by Faith in Public Life at