A Passover Reflection on Freedom

This is a guest post by Suzanne Bring, Development Director of Jewish Community Action.
Bechol dor vador, chayav adam
In every generation, each person must tell the Passover story as though she or he were personally liberated from Egypt. From slavery.
In the central section of the Passover seder, the maggid, we tell the story of the ancient Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. And although the Haggadah – the narration of this Exodus story – likely exists in thousands of versions throughout the world and throughout history, the essence of the central mitzvah, or commandment to tell the story, remains the same.
Why are we required to retell this story, and to retell it as if we ourselves have experienced it?
To answer that, I consulted several Haggadot I have on my shelves at home, as well as several internet sources. The Passover Haggadah is edited by a twentieth-century giant of Jewish studies, Nahum N. Glatzer, first published by Schocken Books in 1953. It’s typical of what I would have chosen in my grad school years – staid, scholarly, and traditional, and full of black-and-white images from medieval and early-modern Haggadot.
Glatzer’s Haggadah tells the story of slavery in Egypt and liberation from bondage without much embellishment. Tucked into the back of the book are several additional readings about the Holocaust; these no doubt supplemented later additions of the Haggadah, as the American Jewish community gradually began to grapple with that calamity. No great leap is required to understand Glatzer’s comparison: The catalogue of crimes committed during the Shoah is vast, and it includes not just genocide, but also real enslavement.
But there Glatzer’s parallels between the ancient and modern end. He makes no further connections between the conditions of ancient slavery and liberation and any other contemporary situations.
At the figurative other end of my bookcase is Jewish Community Action’s Haggadah, developed over the past eight years by JCA staff, volunteers, and Rabbi Amy Eilberg for our annual Immigrants’ Rights Freedom Seder. This very new Haggadah incorporates personal stories of immigrants to the U.S. – individuals who were compelled to leave their nations of origin because of political or religious persecution, war, starvation. Here, their lives are not easy. Because of our complicated immigration system, some have overstayed their tourist visas and fear detention and deportation. Others are separated from their families. While here, most struggle with continued poverty, the challenges of a vastly different culture and an unfamiliar language, and with deep-seated, institutionalized, American racism. Yet, they stay, because being here is still liberation, compared with the virtual bondage they experienced in their home countries–the condition of not being free to worship as they wished, of not having the freedom to choose where to live or how to make a living, the bondage that is poverty and lack of education for their children. That’s why Jewish Community Action is working on comprehensive immigration reform and local immigrant rights.
Many, but not all, immigrants in America are undocumented. As difficult as life is, as near to a condition of bondage is the life of an immigrant, the life of someone who is undocumented is more difficult still. Throughout the U.S. – in California and Florida, but also in Minnesota, New Jersey, and nearly everywhere else – the people who pick tomatoes and lettuce, oranges and strawberries, are usually undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, and other Latino countries. They fear for their health – exposed to shocking levels of chemicals used on the produce. They fear for their children – who haven’t enough food, nor enough healthcare, and who will therefore find it hard to finish school. Most of all, they fear for their safety – because they worry daily about immigration raids and possible deportation. Passover reminds us to be allies to our immigrant neighbors and work for stronger immigrant rights laws, stronger worker protections and the right to organize, and comprehensive immigration reform that allows a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants.
But as much like bondage their lives might look, most of these immigrants are not technically enslaved: In theory, they can walk away from their jobs, even if the other choices are equally difficult. In theory, they can move to other places, even if what awaits them elsewhere is just as harsh. There are other immigrants whose lives are harder still. In the U.S. and around the world, there is real enslavement. In Florida, for instance, the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers has helped prosecute several shocking slavery cases. The victims are very similar in background to other immigrants, but they were forced to work for little or no remuneration, assaulted and tortured, isolated from family and friends, threatened with death, and held prisoner.
About 14,500 people in the U.S. are held in slavery as domestics, farm laborers, factory workers, and prostitutes. But their enslavement is the sign of a much bigger problem, a problem that the retelling of the maggid at Passover can help us begin to address: In recounting our own liberation from slavery, we must remember the stranger, end slavery in as it literally exists, and work for liberation in every way possible. This Passover, and every year, you can help Jewish Community Action work for freedom and justice, for immigrants and for us all.
(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alex-s/ / CC BY 2.0)