As I make my haroset and tzimmes in preparation for my seder, I'm feeling especially appreciative of our precious freedom as Jews. And, I feel even more connected to my Jewish American heritage and more reflective about my roots. Growing up and, until recently, I took pride in my background but focused more on the secular part of it. Sure, I loved being together as a family and my mother, (of course), made the best matzoh ball soup. But, I didn't really reflect on what it means to be a Jew in today's world. I get it now. That new reflection is due, in part, to having the rare opportunity to travel throughout the country over the past year sharing stories about amazing Jewish Americans trying to keep our heritage alive. That's no simple task given a dramatic increase in cultural intolerance and anti-Semitism, e.g., more than 50% of college campuses reported an incident in a 2014 national study, and a declining Jewish population - hovering under 2% in the U.S. - largely because of assimilation.
By hosting and producing a new show called America Undiscovered, I'm meeting such inspiring people whose faith and passion for their Judaism is infectious. People I'll never forget like Ann Gerache of Vicksburg, Mississippi, an 86-year-old matriarch of her community doing whatever she can to keep her tiny Jewish community alive. There are only 10 congregants left in the city's only synagogue and her Christian friends have rallied to ensure the pews are filled at Friday Shabbat services. And, they're always there to observe important holidays and occasions. I called Ann to wish her a Happy Passover and she was thrilled to report that there will be 71 people at her community seder tomorrow night! Amazingly, only 20 of them will be local Jews and their visiting relatives. The rest will be her Christian friends and neighbors who are coming to celebrate and bring some of their own favorite Passover dishes! Turns out they've been coming together for this unique annual seder since 1985 and it's a Vicksburg highlight. At a time when there are growing concerns about fewer Jews and increasing intolerance, it's very gratifying to see a wonderful example of interfaith acceptance and appreciation of differences. Breaking bread together has taken on a new meaning for me now and this weekend, as I break off a piece of matzoh to sample my haroset, I'll be savoring both the taste of those wine-soaked apples and the thought that Ann is doing the same with 70 of her fellow "congregants".