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Seder celebrates 100th year of Jewish civil rights group

Hadass Novick of Framingham took parsley to dip into salt water, as part of a Seder celebration on Sunday.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Hadass Novick of Framingham took parsley to dip into salt water, as part of a Seder celebration on Sunday.

Muslims broke matzo bread on Sunday, and Catholics asked the Four Questions about the meaning of Passover, as people of varied backgrounds gathered for a Seder celebrating the centennial of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization founded in Chicago in 1913.

Though the event included many traditional elements such as wine and bitter herbs, one thing was missing.

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“I am told that at this Seder there is no gefilte fish, so we should all be very happy with that,” said Boston City Councilor Michael P. Ross, referring to the cold, fragrant balls of ground fish often served at Jewish meals.

The ceremony was themed “A Nation of Immigrants” and celebrated the disparate customs and shared struggles of immigrants new and long-established, from many nations and cultures. Among the more than 400 attendees who packed the Campus Center Ballroom at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Jewish yarmulkes mixed with the hijabs of Muslim women and turbans of Sikhs.

Mayors Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Setti Warren of Newton presented the league with proclamations lauding the organization’s century of opposing discrimination against Jewish people, immigrants, and minorities of all kinds.

In an interview, Menino said the league plays an important role in quickly addressing hate crimes and issues of discrimination when they arise.

“You always have a flare-up,” Menino said. “You need someone out there that takes care of the situation.”

Menino said he had watched as Boston’s population of immigrants and people of color grew to become more than half the city’s residents during his nearly 20 years as mayor, as many new immigrants settled in the city’s neighborhoods.

“We’re one of the most diverse cities in the country,” he said. “The diversity of our city is the strength of our city.”

Like several others at the Seder, Menino spoke in support of inclusion for the gay and lesbian community, in addition to ethnic and religious minorities.

The five-term mayor said he agreed with statements released Friday by blogger Maureen Dahill and state Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, candidates for a South Boston state Senate seat, calling on organizers to welcome gay and lesbian groups to the neighborhood’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“I’ve been a strong advocate of that for years,” Menino said. “When they banned gays from marching in the parade, I said I’m not going to be there. And I haven’t been there since.”

The Seder included performances and speakers representing many cultures and several generations, telling stories of immigrants who survived against long odds and worked hard to build new lives while learning a new language and unfamiliar customs.

Among the performers were Adrin Levy, 13, and her sister Avia, 9, who sang with a group of fellow students from the MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham. Adrin Levy said she was glad to see an example of harmony rather than tension between Jewish and Muslim people.

“You always see the negatives,” she said. “This really put it in more of a positive light.”

The girls’ mother, Debka Janak, said her daughters are exposed to multiple cultures and languages at home. She was born in South Africa and later met their father, an Israeli of Syrian descent, while traveling in Colombia.

“When we have our big dinners at Thanksgiving and Passover, the American-born ones are in the minority,” Janak, 41, said.

Robert Trestan, acting regional director for the league, said the day was all about diversity. “For this Seder, it was really important to make sure that everyone was represented,” Trestan said. “Our goal is to secure justice and fair treatment for everyone.”

Amar Sawhney, an entrepreneur and a member of the Sikh community based around a Milford temple, attended the annual Seder for the first time but said he had been to several Seders at the homes of Jewish friends.

Sawhney said the Jewish and Sikh people have experiences of hardship and discrimination in common.

“I’m an immigrant. Being in the company of immigrants — many of whom had a much harder time than I’ve had — is enlightening and humbling,” Sawhney, 46, said of the Seder. “We stand for equality and nondiscrimination, so . . . the cause of the ADL really resonates with the Sikh community.”

Gerald Fanfan, a Mattapan-based real estate consultant who was born in Haiti and immigrated to Boston as a child, said he came with a group of colleagues and would try to bring more next year.

“This is what you really need here: tolerance, understanding other cultures,” said Fanfan, 34. “For me, this is my first time, and it won’t be my last time because there’s a lot I have learned here.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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