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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Welcoming Strangers to the Seder

Welcoming strangers to the Seder
By 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.
Jack Jakainte, Alusine Swaray and Allan Bangura dip their matza into the
maror at the Pessah Seder for foreign workers.
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."

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