Treating the Stranger with Compassion at Passover; Who Will Join Us This Year at Our Seder Tables?
Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Fri, Mar 19, 2010 at 10:45 am
In this festive season, as we prepare to join together with our closest family and friends to celebrate Passover, we are reminded that the Jewish people are obligated to transmit the lessons of the holiday to each new generation. This duty exists for Jewish families, but also for the community as a whole – including organizations like HIAS that seek to engage members of the Jewish community to address our most compelling humanitarian, social, and political challenges.
At HIAS, we strive to reach out to young Jews through the local and national organizing efforts of the HIAS Young Leaders program (HYL). Last week, our HYL New York Chapter, with the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek and the Pardes Institute, organized an Immigration Beit Midrash (study hall) featuring Rabbi Yitzchak Blau from Israel’s Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah. This lively session – attended by 30 participants, mostly in their 20s and 30s – focused on the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger and how this central Jewish value relates to current issues in immigration advocacy.
One particularly compelling teaching that Rabbi Blau presented was from the Sefer HaHinnuch Mizvah (The Book of Mitzvah Education) of the 16th century Rabbi Pinhas HaLevi of Barcelona. Rabbi HaLevi declares:
"It is for us to learn from this precious mitzvah to take pity on any man who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and the site of the family of his fathers. Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him – just as we see that the Torah adjures us to have compassion on anyone who needs help. With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the Eternal Lord, be He blessed, and that blessings of Heaven will abide about our heads.
Scripture alludes to the reason for the command by stating, for you were gerim (alien sojourners) in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19). It thus reminds us that long ago we were scorched by that great pain that comes upon every man who sees himself among alien people, in a foreign land. Remembering, then, the great anxiety of the heart that the matter entails, which we experienced in the past, until the Eternal Lord in His loving-kindness took us out from there, we will be moved to compassion for every who is so [situated]."
HIAS’ young activists, and all Jews from generation to generation, are challenged by this powerful teaching to develop our capacity for rakhmones (compassion) by speaking out and providing care for vulnerable strangers. We Jews have felt the stranger’s pain and anxiety, and now must act based on this enduring memory.
At its core, it is this compassion for refugees, immigrants, and other migrants far from home that drives HIAS’ agenda of service and advocacy during Passover, and all year round. These strangers are Jews and non-Jews in need, thus underscoring that we at HIAS – and in the Jewish community more broadly – help the stranger, not because he or she is Jewish, but because we are Jewish.
And so, when we come together at our Seder tables this year, we remember the obligation of compassion for the stranger among us and are joined in spirit by members of our HIAS, Jewish, and human families.
- We are joined by Mr. and Mrs. Y, a Yemeni Jewish couple resettled with the assistance of HIAS, our local resettlement partner FEGS, and the entire organized Jewish community, who after more than a decade of separation have been reunited with family in Monsey, NY. Fearing persecution and violence in Yemen, this couple is now secure and able to practice Judaism freely, and will be celebrating Passover this year for the first time with all 12 of their grandchildren.
- We are joined by B, a Christian refugee displaced by the civil war in South Sudan in the late 1990s, who wandered throughout East Africa and eventually found temporary refuge in Israel. HIAS’ Israel office learned that B’s wife and sons were refugees living in Nebraska and successfully advocated with authorities from Israel, the U.S., and the UNHCR to permit B to immigrate to the United States to live with his family in their new home.
- We are joined by A, a 14 year old Afghani Muslim boy who was smuggled into Ukraine and abandoned on the streets of Kyiv. As an unaccompanied child and a homeless refugee, A was particularly vulnerable and was living without anyone to protect him in a hostile new environment. With help and representation from HIAS Kyiv’s Legal Protection Service, A was referred for resettlement and now lives in safety in Michigan.
- We are joined also by the tens of thousands of Haitians who look to HIAS for advocacy assistance in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck their homeland. Haitians who are seeking Temporary Protected Status (TPS), fair treatment as refugee applicants, or permission to come to the United States to wait here for family immigration visas rather than face years of separation and deprivation in Haiti, all deserve our focused assistance to cope with their losses.
At our Passover Seders we now can add to our traditional story of the Exodus from Egypt by including the stories of the Exodus from Yemen, the Exodus from Sudan, the Exodus from Afghanistan, and the Exodus from Haiti. In each case, we understand the stories through the lens of Jewish tradition and the teachings of compassion toward the stranger taught by Rabbi HaLevi in the 16th century and Jewish leaders ever since. And we learn – and teach each generation – that our empathy for strangers in our midst and our work to alleviate their suffering is central to our tradition’s understanding of the Passover story and our Jewish experience as a people of migration.
Wishing you and your family a joyous and meaningful Passover holiday.
* You can read more about the Yemeni resettlement program and refugees B and A in our upcoming 2009 Annual Report, which will be available in April.