Every year at Passover, Jews around the world revisit the foundational story of their ancient ancestors’ journey as refugees to the promised land.
With a modern-day refugee crisis sweeping the globe, the holiday has taken on new significance for some of those observing it.
Passover, which falls between April 10-18 this year, is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. Over the course of the eight-day festival, many Jews partake in one or two seders ― ritual meals marked by an assortment of symbolic foods, songs and stories. During the meal, those gathered read from the Haggadah, a booklet that explains the foods on the table, recounts the story of the Exodus, and includes prayers, songs, discussion questions and vignettes.
This year, American Jewish World Service and HIAS ― two Jewish social justice organizations ― are distributing Haggadah supplements that connect the ancient Exodus story to the global issues of today.
“The Passover seder is about going through the retelling and re-experiencing of the Exodus,” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement for HIAS, told The Huffington Post. “It’s not just to remember what it meant for the Jewish people, but also it’s a call to action to help people who are today fleeing persecution and journeying toward freedom.”
HIAS’s supplement draws a direct parallel between the Jewish experience of displacement and that of 65 million people who have been forcibly displaced ― including more than 20 million refugees ― today. “At a time when there are more refugees and displaced people than ever before in recorded history, there couldn’t be a more urgent time for us to connect our story to the story of today’s refugees,” Rosenn said.
The United States operates the largest refugee resettlement program in the world. This accounts in part for the shockwave President Donald Trump sent when he temporarily suspended all resettlement with his recent executive orders, which judges subsequently blocked.
Just a few years prior, at the height of the war, U.S. security concerns lead the government to deny visas to many Jews fleeing persecution over fears they might be spies.
We’re witnessing a similar distrust toward refugees today ― many of whom are Muslims ― said Rosenn.
“There’s a lot of Islamophobia, and fear of people who are different ― the ‘other,’” she said. “This has been the story of the Jewish people, too, and the story of the waves of immigrants who have come to this country.”
For many American Jews engaged in social justice work, promoting refugee rights is a matter of faith. When Trump issued his first travel ban on January 27, a broad-spectrum of American Jewish organizations were quick to respond with condemnation and reproach.
“As Jews we are taught va’ahavtem et ha-ger — as we were once strangers, so must we love the stranger,” wrote the National Council of Jewish Women. “We must rise above prejudice and fear to open our communities to the individuals and families who seek a haven in the United States.”
Since then, more than 340 Jewish congregations have signed on to HIAS’s “welcome campaign,” pledging to take solid action on the refugee crisis. These communities are coordinating events to educate others, petitioning their elected officials, and raising money to support refugees.
But Jewish communities are eager to do more, Rosenn said. HIAS has released Haggadah supplements in the past, but more people have downloaded this year’s than in previous years, the rabbi said. “I think there’s a real hunger for this both because it’s educational and because it really deepens people’s understanding of the refugee experience.”
And it doesn’t end when the seder dinner is over. “My hope is when we stand up from the Passover table, we’ll rise with more of a commitment to doing the work of helping refugees and making sure America is true to its legacy of welcome,” Rosenn said. “What’s at stake is no less than human lives and the nature of our country.”