From Fear to Freedom

Refugees Given Center Stage at Passover Seders Across the U.S.

Some communities invite refugees from Syria, Gaza and Yemen to join their Passover meal, while at other seders, the theme is woven in with textual additions and symbolic foods

The Refugee Seder at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – Three refugees, each of whom recently fled persecution in the Middle East and made their way to America, stood at the front of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun’s sanctuary and recounted their journeys from fear to freedom. After each one told his or her story, all harrowing in a different way, the several dozen young adults who had come to attend the Refugee Seder applauded.

Maher is an anti-Assad activist from Aleppo; Amira is a student and peace activist from Gaza who is seeking asylum in the U.S. and Nasim was accused of being a Mossad agent and threatened with death in Yemen for trying to connect his countrymen with Israelis. (All three of their names were changed to protect their safety.) Around 60 Jews in their twenties and thirties applauded each speaker at the mini-seder this week, which used the HIAS haggadah supplement as its guide. At its start, one seder leader removed his shoes and placed them at the sanctuary’s threshold – a new ritual symbolizing that Jews know what it is to be refugees and that those at the seder commit to standing with contemporary refugees.

>> Looking for last-minute recipes to spice up your Passover meal? Haaretz got you covered >>

Dr. Mimi Levine, 31, a psychiatrist in training at Columbia University Medical Center came to the Refugee Seder because some of her patients at the upper Manhattan hospital are undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “They are essentially refugees,” said Levine, a longtime Bnai Jeshurun member, adding that they may not have that legal status. “They are feeling more vulnerable now,” she said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration. “But it’s not just them. It really is affecting everyone.”

Seder participant Dr. Mimi Levine.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

This was but one of the countless refugee-themed Passover ritual meals taking place across America this year. At some, people who have recently sought refuge in the U.S. are being invited to join community seders, making real the dictum “let all who are hungry come and eat.” In many more personal seders, the theme will be woven into the text through additions to the ritual and to the symbolic foods on the seder plates.

It’s not much of a stretch to link the Passover seder with the pressing humanitarian and political issue of refugees and immigration. After all, when Jews worldwide recount the story of the Israelites’ slavery, redemption and Exodus, they are telling the refugee story of their own people.

It’s right in the haggadah, the Passover seder’s text and ritual guide. Though there is a wide range of haggadahs with an equally wide range of themes, they all relate the same core story: that of the Israelites, suffering and enslaved to a king who sees them as threatening. After they are finally delivered from their servitude, the Israelites wander, homeless and stateless, through the desert for 40 years. Unlike in the case of today’s refugees, however, God fed the Israelites by delivering miraculous manna, according to the Torah.

The commandment is that we not only remember the Exodus experience each year at our seders, but that we re-live it. “Our sages teach us that in every generation, and on each and every day, we must see ourselves as though we have just been liberated from Egypt,” explains a Passover pamphlet published by the Lubavitch Youth Organization and handed out by Chabad members.

“Passover is an incredibly rich time to be connecting with refugee issues,” HIAS’s Rabbi Jennie Rosenn says. There are 65 million refugees and people displaced from their homes by war, famine and other violence said Rosenn, HIAS’ vice president of community engagement. That is, she notes, more people than in any other time in recorded history.

In the seder “we’re telling our own foundational story of fleeing persecution toward freedom, re-living and re-experiencing it,” she said. “It’s also the whole reason why we should welcome, protect and love the stranger. ‘Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” she added, citing the hagaddah text. “It’s a very fitting and natural time for us to be weaving in the stories of today’s refugees.”

For the second year, HIAS produced a seder supplement focusing on its core issue, refugee resettlement. Within two days of its publication, this year’s edition was downloaded close to 9,000 times, with many more downloads expected in the last days before Passover.

Nicole Fix.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Nicole Fix plans to include some of its readings in the seder she’ll be holding with two dozen friends at her Brooklyn apartment on the second night. “It’s particularly important this year because of what’s going on politically – the Muslim ban and aggressive political moves against refugees,” said Fix, an arts organization administrator. “It’s fundamentally a Jewish issue and Passover, of course, is thematically relevant.”

A new ritual introduced by HIAS is to have seder participants leave their shoes on the doorstep before beginning the formal text. “We have stood in those shoes of refugees,” said Rosenn, referring to the generations of Jews who fled czars and Nazis as refugees, seeking freedom in safe havens, including Israel and the U.S. “Today, even as we celebrate our freedom, we’re continuing to stand with refugees,” said Rosenn. Jews were prominent among the many Americans who poured into the streets at HIAS-organized and other rallies, protesting the president’s executive order barring refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Movement is advocating that a new symbolic food be added to people’s seder plates this year: a whole pineapple. “In Colonial times the pineapple was a symbol of welcome and prosperity,” according to a video put out by the denomination. “As we think about those who are in the midst of crossing through danger into unknown lands we aim to bestow upon them the gift of hospitality and sweet welcomejust as we gained our freedom we must fight for those who are not yet free.”

The idea of a fruit as large as a whole pineapple being added to seder plates alongside other contemporary symbolic foods – like an orange representing respect for women and LGBTQ Jews, and olives, to signify hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians – has not been without controversy.

It has prompted lively discussion, said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Berkley California. While the rabbi said that some felt another symbol to signify the very theme of a seder would be redundant and distracting, he suspected it might be a useful addition. “Because of the pain we’ve endured, it’s a challenge to remain open to the pain of others,” Creditor said. “I’m sensitive to people’s resistance to including yet another symbol, but the very purpose of a seder is to provoke questions. If it leads someone to say ‘why is that there?’ and gets you thinking, it’s a good thing to include.”

T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call to Human Rights has also published a seder supplement called “The Other Side of the Sea” and put out a mezuzah card, which it’s encouraging people to print out and attach to their doorposts under their mezuzahs. The card is meant to remind seder-goers of the mark of blood the Israelites were told to put on their own doorframes so that the killing of the firstborn would pass over their homes, and of their families’ immigrant pasts.

Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, is holding a refugee seder the second night of Passover. Fifty locally resettled refugees will be among the 200 in attendance. The Conservative congregation works with a local refugee resettlement organization and has put the issue at the center of its social justice work, some of it detailed on its refugee blog. “I'm hoping the Seder will shine a bright light on this issue for my community, give refugees a human face, and remind us of our religious responsibilities towards these people who are among the most vulnerable on the planet,” said Rabbi Michael Knopf.

The Refugee Seder at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“By gathering everyone together for dinner and conversationwe’re helping our refugee neighbors make crucial communal connections and helping our community encounter refugees as people, rather than as statistics or images on the news,” he told Haaretz.

Other synagogues throughout the country are running similar seders.

The most poignant of refugee-themed seders, perhaps, is scheduled to take place outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Manhattan’s Federal Plaza. Dozens of immigrants are ordered to check in with the agency there each day. At 8:15 A.M. on Passover’s first morning, April 11th, hundreds of supporters are expected to gather for an interfaith seder called “Let My People Stay.”

Its goal is to show solidarity with those immigrants ordered to appear – who enter the building never knowing whether they will be able to walk out or rather, be detained and deported – and their families. T’ruah is among the dozen or so immigrant and legal rights organizations sponsoring the event.

“The lives and fates of undocumented immigrants have always been precarious in the United States, but the anti-immigrant rhetoric, the threats to sanctuary cities, and the government's commitment to detention and deportation are threatening the lives and futures of so many,” said Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann, spiritual leader of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, in Manhattan. She is helping lead the seder at the ICE office. “During Passover, we talk about our past as slaves and as wanderers. At this time, when families are being separated and innocent people are being targeted, how can we not identify with and stand up with those whose wanderings have led them here to America?”