Friday, April 15, 2011

African Refugee Seder

Recently many of our current volunteers and alumni shared their Jewich culture by participating in an early Passover seder with about 500 African migrants in South Tel Aviv ( Here's what Adam Workman, a current 10 month Social Action track participant, had to say about the experience:

For me, Pesach has always been a time to see that crazy family of mine, eat delicious food, and retell the story of our people crossing arid deserts to reach the Promised Land. As the holiday approaches this year in 2011, the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv had a gathering for their own family. Around 5:30 in the afternoon of Saturday April 9th, the African refugees from around the area, the Israeli citizens, as well as the Tikkun Olam participants all gathered at Levinsky Park to have a seder of their own. This, indeed, was a spectacle to see as individuals from several different cultural and ethnic backgrounds congregated to share this special time together.

This seder happened to take place approximately 24 hours following a demonstration by the Tel Aviv population that resents the growing African refugee situation present in Tel Aviv. People gathered to express their beliefs as to why the refugee “problem” is getting out of control while chanting outrageous and spiteful slogans aimed at the refugees. While the refugee population has been increasing over the past several years, there is no excuse for this type of behavior. While it is true that much needs to be done regarding the amassing refugees, there is only so much that Israel can do. On top of that, racism and hatred not acceptable and is blatantly forgetting that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is our responsibility to never forget that. Having an event such as this Refugee Seder really seemed to breathe life into a population that has been the victim of insensitive and slanderous comments.

The night began with all of the guests arriving between 5:30 and 6:30 at the basketball courts in the center of the park. Conversation flew back and forth, despite the obvious language barrier. Hearing Hebrew, Tigrinya, Arabic, English and others in the same vicinity was truly mesmerizing. After Matzah, Charoset, and beverages were distributed amongst the tables, the organizers of the seder began a song session that included Hebrew songs, as well as songs that were believed to be universal, such as Bob Marley. The leaders of the seder recited the 4 Questions, the 4 Cups of Wine and explained a quick version of the Exodus from Egypt. Then, the refugees explained their stories of how they too traveled through the same land on their way to Israel. These stories were both fascinating as well as depressing, as they usually depicted difficult times during a difficult journey. However, there was a sense of closure as both sides realized that their recent stories and our ancestral stories were quite similar. Then, of course, it was time to eat; the best part of any seder!

After eating a filling and delicious dinner, several volunteers traveled around to distribute fruits for dessert, as well as begin to clean up the trash. During this time, other volunteers were taking the extra food and boxing it up so that the refugees could take it home. Even young children of the refugees were eager to lend a hand. After all the food and garbage was cleaned up, the festivities continued with song and dance sessions. A live band arrived to perform as circles of refugees, Israelis, and of course the Tikkun Olam-ers danced and celebrated the holiday, as well as the unity present. A true feeling of understanding filled the basketball court as the mass that was once a representation of several nations morphed into a homogeneous mixture of people simply enjoying coexistence. More events of this sort are needed to break down the walls of difference and misunderstanding and build new ones with a foundation of acceptance and respect.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jewish Perspective on Asylum Seekers

Katie, one of our 10 month Coexistence track participants, recently had the following to say about asylum seekers in Israel:

Unlike many of the people in our program, I don’t work directly with African refugees. I can’t call them my students, my neighbors or my friends. My experiences have largely come from observation, conversation with my fellow participants, and my commute to and from the Secular Yeshiva. Watching young, unemployed African men crouched on the side of Har Tsyion, waiting for day labor contracts to come their way, raises a plethora of issues, but first and foremost, it raises the issue of what a Jewish State should be.

As a Jewish national home, does Israel have the room and resources to provide for the thousands of Africans who have fled conflict and settled throughout the country? The Talmud teaches that “Jews are the compassionate children of compassionate parents. One who is merciless toward his fellow creatures is no descendant of our father Abraham.” Does deporting young Sudanese refugees back to uncertain and possibly dangerous situations or interning them in a holding facility in the Negev fit in with this Talmudic understanding of a core Jewish value?

I could share with you terrifying anecdotes about the labor exploitation, xenophobia, and deportation of asylum seekers. This is a country that absorbed more than a million Russian olim within the span of a decade. Can it not provide paperwork and justice to a few thousand with no home to return to? Disentangling the issue of undocumented asylum seekers from the heated rhetoric oftentimes used to discuss it is a necessary step in order to truly begin to seek justice for the young men on the side of the road.