Not a 24-hour news cycle passes these days without a story on immigration, whether it be the tussle over sanctuary cities, dismantling the DACA program or boats loaded with fleeing migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean.
As Passover approaches, bringing with it its own dramatic stories of forced migration and the search for safe haven, local people reflect on how the Passover story resonates today.
For Rabbi Linda Joseph of Har Sinai Congregation, Passover’s migration story hits close to home. Joseph, a native of Melbourne, Australia, studied in the U.S. and then returned to her hometown seeking work as a rabbi. But there were no jobs, so she immigrated to the U.S. where, after much migration through many states in a number of positions, she assumed the senior rabbi post at Har Sinai in 2016.
“It just seems a natural marriage, given that we’ve done things on migration through the year, looking at DACA, looking at where we’ve come from and where we’re going. I, myself, am a migrant, so the issue of immigration … hits me very personally,” she said. “It’s been one that I felt that I had a very authentic voice on. Because I have an accent, it’s very clear that I’m a migrant. I decided that in terms of readings and in terms of activities that we’re going to do, that they are going to be migration-based for our Seder.”
“My father is a wandering Aramean,” a reference to Abraham, are words that resonate with Joseph.
“When you think about our Jewish history, it is filled with migration, from that very moment that Abraham left his father’s house and went wandering,” she said. “The Exodus story is itself a story of migration. It starts with the 12 brothers coming down to Egypt following Joseph with their father and ultimately ends with the redemption from Egypt with the Israelites moving from Egypt, wandering for 40 years and eventually coming to a land that they could call their own. That’s a story of migration too.”
Joseph said the trajectory of Jewish history is one of migration, whether for redemption, from oppression or seeking a better economic or political situation, such as the South African or Russian migrations.
“Migration has always been, for us, going to a possibility, to hopefully something better. That’s what Passover is all about. There’s a place that is a mitzrayim, a narrow place for us — and looking for a place of more expanse,” she said. “My migration story is also one of being in a mitzrayim and going to somewhere where there is greater possibility. For me, it was finding work. That was the impetus of my migration — going from that narrow place of, I could do something else or be unemployed, which is not a great place to be, to saying, well, if I leave here, there is infinite possibility of what I could do. And that’s the whole Passover story.”
At Harford Chabad in Bel Air, Rabbi Kushi Schusterman relates the Passover story to the broader idea of freedom as it relates to immigration.
“I think it’s less about immigration and migration and more about serving G-d being true freedom,” he wrote in an email, adding that the real goal of Jews leaving Egypt was to be free.
“‘Let my people go,’ it’s an inspirational message,” he said. “There are those who say that this quote from the Torah was the inspiration for the abolitionist movement. Looking at the end of that same verse, it says, ‘So that they may serve Me.’”
Schusterman quotes the Book of Exodus on the same theme: “‘And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God … for there is no free man except one that involves himself in Torah learning,” he said.
On April 10, the Jewish Museum of Maryland will hold a book launch event for “On Middle Ground” by Deb Weiner with talks by Weiner and Baltimore historian Gil Sandler about how the Baltimore Jewish immigrant experience was shaped by the city’s location at the nexus of the North and South.
For museum deputy director Tracie Guy-Decker, a recent visit to Ellis Island with her family brought the immigrant experience home, with echoes from the past completely relevant today.
“I was struck by some of the political cartoons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They looked like they could’ve been drawn today, except that where today I would expect to see Mexicans, Syrians or Haitians, back then it was Jews, Italians and Poles,” she recalled. “The stories we tell about ‘the other’ — immigrants, strangers, people of other faiths or races — are the same, generation after generation, though the identity of ‘the other’ changes. That’s the beauty and brilliance of the Passover story, in my view. It requires of us to see ourselves in the stranger and to remember the divinity in all of us.”
“My favorite moment of the Passover Seder is the removal of wine from our glasses as we recite the 10 plagues. It is the literal manifestation of the fact that our joy is — and must be — diminished by the pain of others, even that of our enemies,” she added. “Through Passover and throughout the liturgical year, again and again, we are told to love and protect the stranger because we ourselves were strangers. It is an important and difficult lesson, because, as the current political situation proves, it is so easy to demonize strangers.”
Museum director Marvin Pinkert said a piece he wrote a dozen years ago is now a family Seder tradition.
“Passover at our house usually includes the attached passage I wrote in 2006. When we had kids at home, I tried to write something new to add to the Seder every year,” he said via email. “I had hoped this one would be obsolete by now — but unfortunately … ”
The passage is below:
History’s First ‘Guest Workers’
We came from a place of poverty and famine
Crossing the river to a strange new land;
We were welcomed to do the work that Egyptians could not or would not do;
We built their cities and their monuments,
Still we were not Egyptians. We were a despised people, set apart.
Even as our labor was valued, an eye of fear was cast lest we become “too numerous”
And with our strange ways and strange God change the culture of Egypt
And so it went through the ages:
We helped clothe the citizens of Rome, but we were not Romans
We helped build the glory of Andalucía, but we were not Spaniards
We put milk on the tables of Warsaw and Vilna, but we were not Poles or Lithuanians
So on this Passover night, when we recall our liberation from Egypt …
And all the liberations that followed …
We not only give thanks for the ability of our grandparents and great-grandparents to find a land of freedom, a place where we are neither slave nor “guest”;
But we are asked to cast our lot with the displaced, the migrant and those whose ambiguous legal status makes them prey for exploiters of every variety;
Our liberation is only complete when all people are free.