Welcoming strangers to the Seder

Seder hosting some 45 non-Jews held in Tel Aviv for foreign workers.

refugees seder 224.63 (photo credit: Solomon Israel)
refugees seder 224.63
(photo credit: Solomon Israel)
After finishing his first cup of wine Sunday night, Alusine Swaray dipped his matza into maror and happily went back for a second helping, undeterred by the spicy reminder of affliction. Swaray, 48, a Christian from Sierra Leone, was one of some 45 foreigners enjoying the sixth annual Pessah Seder for foreign workers at the Beit Daniel Synagogue in Tel Aviv. The Seder is a joint effort by Beit Daniel, Keren B'Kavod - the social action branch of the Israeli Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center - and the Mesila Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community, a Tel Aviv municipal organization dedicated to providing social services and information to Tel Aviv's large population of foreign workers. "We felt that we needed to do more," explained Rabbi Meir Azari of Beit Daniel. "If you are in Tel Aviv, you can't ignore the presence of the foreign workers... This is an opportunity to meet them, to show them that we care." After musical and dance performances by children from the African, Latin American and Filipino foreign worker communities, the adults retired to a more traditional Seder while the children participated in special activities such as painting their own Seder plates. Maya Vamosh, a Jewish educator at Beit Daniel, explained that the Seder was designed to accommodate the diverse religious views of its participants. "I took the most important elements from the Haggada and left room for the people from Mesila to explain themselves," she expounded. "For instance, where we say the Hallel [prayer], I asked one of the women to bring their praise of God into the Seder." Despite the multi-religious nature of the Seder, the participants were still able to appreciate the Jewish elements of the ceremony. Rose Roxas, 40, is a domestic helper from the Philippines and a volunteer with Mesila who assists members of the Filipino community in navigating the difficulties involved in being a foreign worker. "It's amazing, really, how God took care of the Israelites when they were about to leave Egypt," said Rose, an Evangelist. "It's the same as in the days of the Torah." Life in the Jewish state has impacted Rose's family beyond simply teaching them about Jewish history. Her 11-year-old son, David Israel, plays nearby. "King David is my favorite Bible character," explained Rose, regarding her Judaic taste in names. Jewish history and religion were not the only issues in the spotlight at this Seder - the politics of foreign workers played a role in the proceedings, as well. "We like you, we love you, we support you, and we want you to get the rights you deserve," Azari said in his speech to the workers. Mesila director Tamar Schwartz delivered a similar address, discussing the significance of the Pessah story to the situation of foreign workers "Thousands of years, and nothing has changed?" she said. As Schwartz spoke of Moses's famous demand to "let my people go," Swaray nodded in deep agreement. "It is necessary for the government to give the same rights to the children who are born here," said Swaray. "Regardless of how their parents entered," added his colleague Edwin Brownie of Liberia. The two men were referring to the campaign of their NGO, the African Workers Union, to achieve Israeli citizenship for the children of foreign workers. In addition to their regular jobs as house cleaners, the two men have been petitioning the government on the behalf of foreign workers since 1997. Politics aside, however, the Seder served as a multicultural learning experience. Teresa Rodriguez, 40, a Colombian domestic helper, highlighted what she saw as the beauty of the event. "It's beautiful because here today, it doesn't matter if you are African, Latin American or Asian," she said. Azari also commented on the diversity of the event. "I don't think that you will be able to see a lot of synagogues in Israel hosting non-Jews for the Seder," he said. But he added, "For most of them, probably this is the first time that they are sitting and not serving. This is an opportunity for them to feel welcome."