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U.S. citizenship: a great privilege and responsibility

This Friday evening, Jews all over the world will sit down with family and friends to retell one of the most important stories in Jewish history. The story of Passover reminds us of the exodus from Egypt, the tyranny of slavery, the freedom from bondage and the extraordinary power of both hope and promise. It's a story that we recite every year, a story we are obligated to share with our children and future generations.

The Jewish community tells and retells the stories of the past largely because of the profound lessons unleashed in their telling — and the application of those lessons in the present. Our collective history and experience are woven into these narratives. The Passover story's core lessons of freedom, acceptance, mutual responsibility, civility and community represent a guidepost for the ages. It is the difference between the darkness and the light; civilization or chaos and destruction.

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We are fortunate to live in a land of opportunity, built on a foundation of individual rights and responsibilities, and the collective embrace of a civil society. That said, you cannot help noticing that the foundation has been cracking, threatening the integrity of this great nation.

The public messages dominating our country today, from the bigotry to the polarizing rhetoric, are contradictory to the intent of our founding fathers. They fly in the face of what it means to be an American. Discourse yes, disagreement yes, but enveloped in a cloak of respect and community. We find ourselves in a place where provocative soundbites of hate take precedence over basic civility. The most popular stories are those laced with hatred; they receive the most clicks and comments — a sad measurement of success and a sure path to darkness. As Jews, we have experienced the horror and pain of hatred, and we are obligated to raise our voices.

This is not the first time our nation faced challenges. There have been a number of difficult moments. Thankfully, there also have been strong leaders who have risen up to reaffirm our basic principles. This country has had formidable leadership. Where are those leaders among us, and are you one of them?

Of course, it takes more than strong leaders to build and secure our future. It takes individual and communal responsibility. The responsibility rests with each and every one of us.

The majority of us can point to our own family's American journey, which began with a past in distant lands. Upon arrival, we may have been considered different, spoken odd languages and embraced bizarre customs. America was to be a unifier, a place of opportunity, of collaboration, of community.

It is not enough to simply condemn those who espouse hate. Hate comes from ignorance and the best way to counter hate is to know the other.

This past week, we had the opportunity to meet two young boys who worked together on a community mural project at the Jewish Community Center. One was African-American, the other Jewish. They came together because of a neighborhood conflict that could have led to violence and lasting hatred. Instead they talked, then painted, then they celebrated. They told us how uncomfortable they were at first but that they now have discovered mutual respect and friendship.

That's how we affect change. Simple, yet seemingly evasive.

We have a chance to write the next chapter in our nation's story. We can determine which characters thrive, what plot lines shine and which universal themes are front and center. It is our story to tell and we can choose bigotry and hatred or mutual respect and cooperation.

So, at our respective Seder tables, when family and friends come together to retell the story of Passover, we will pause and reflect on the values that light up our nation and give thanks that we are citizens of this country.

Here's to the continued promise of this great nation and the power of an idea: We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

During this springtime of renewal, may we all reflect on our great privilege and our great responsibility.

Marc B. Terrill (mterrill@associated.org) is president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where Mark D. Neumann (mark@510ventures.com) is chairman of the board.

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