Tikvah Scholar

Academic Year 2010-2011

Erin Scharff

Erin Scharff

Before law school, Erin worked in DC as an advocate (at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) and researcher (at the Service Employees International Union) as well as a campaign staffer. In 2008, Erin worked on the Obama campaign, starting off as a volunteer in Iowa before joining the campaign full-time for the Ohio primary.

At NYU, Erin is a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar and a Furman Scholar. She is also the recipient of the Milbank- Lederman Fellowship in Law and Economics. Erin serves as an Articles Editor of the Law Review. She also helped found NYU for Obama, and she’s a past chair of the NYU Law Dems. The summer after her first year at law school she worked as a tax policy intern at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. This summer Erin will work for both the Department of Justice (Federal Programs Branch of the Civil Division) and the DC office of Jenner & Block.

Erin graduated from Yale University in May of 2004, where she majored in Religious Studies. At Yale, was a leader in the student labor movement and interned with Elm City Congregations Organized, New Haven's Industrial Areas Foundation affiliated community-based organizing group. She was also the Social Action Vice-President at Yale Hillel and was honored as the 2004 Hillel Exemplar of Excellence for her social justice work and with Yale's Anthony M. Schulte prize for building Town-Gown relations.


(Mentored by Professor Yair Lorberbaum, Tikvah Fellow)

I grew up singing Go Down Moses at my family’s seder. The song is part and parcel of the Passover experience for me, as much a part of the tradition as Avadim Chayinu and Chad Gadya. Of course, Go Down Moses is a slave spiritual. However, at some point in the middle of the twentieth century, American Jews started incorporating the song into the “liturgy” of their seders.

It wasn’t until high school, several years after my family had left Shreveport, Louisiana, that I began to reflect on the strangeness of this cultural appropriation. The awkwardness of this adaptation is startling when one begins to think about it. First, traditionally, Moses’ name is not mentioned at the Passover meal, as the rabbinic authorities feared Jews would see only the role of Moses and not God in the miracle of Exodus. Second, the song is clearly a part of the black Christian musical tradition. And yet, almost all non-Orthodox haggadot published for the American Jewish community include the song.

In my Tikvah paper, I propose to explore this ritual’s origin and meaning. My project is two-fold. First, I hope to trace the introduction of the tradition to mainstream Jewish ritual. The Jewish Theological Seminary has the world’s largest collection of haggadot, and I hope to use their collection to see when and where Go Down Moses first appeared as part of the American Passover literature. Second, I hope to explore the meaning of this liturgy. What are Jews thinking about when they sing this song at twentieth-century seders:  the enslavement of the Israelites, the American slave trade, or more modern day experiences of oppression?

jerusalem old city - Gary Hardman