Abdul Jalal Hashimi grew up in Kabul and fled with his family to the United States after working more than six years against the Taliban alongside American military forces.
A 32-year-old Muslim, he has known few Jews personally, but come Passover he’ll be among more than a dozen refugees sharing special holiday food and swapping life stories with congregants at Temple Beth-El in his new hometown of Richmond, Va.
The experience, he said, is aimed at breaking down stereotypes and eliminating bigotry.
“What I hope is to know each other,” said Jalal, who prefers that name, in a blog post the synagogue posted on its website ahead of the Seder.
The Conservative synagogue’s senior rabbi, Michael Knopf, said in an interview that it’s the first time his congregation has marked the global refugee crisis through special readings and rituals at a Seder. Congregants and guests will be using a supplement to existing Haggadahs, the collection of recitations and stories that guide the evening, including the telling of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt.
The supplement was written by HIAS, a Jewish resettlement organization first established in the 1880s that has helped millions of Jews fleeing pogroms, war and other tragedies. In recent years, the nonprofit has helped resettle refugees of all faiths and ethnicities and offers aid around the world to people ineligible for entry to the U.S.
Last year, Muslims comprised 51 percent of the 4,191 people from 47 countries assisted by HIAS and its network of more than 320 synagogues that have signed on to support refugees.
The HIAS Haggadah supplement last year was downloaded from the group’s website more than 3,000 times and distributed in hard copy at events and through other organizations, said Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS director of education and community engagement.
“Throughout our history violence and persecution have driven us to wander to seek freedom,” she said. “Passover really feels like the time on the calendar that just makes the most sense to put people’s attention on the global refugee crisis. There is clearly so much resonance with Jewish history.”
Rituals suggested by the supplement include refugee guests and Seder leaders rising from the table to place a pair of shoes on the doorstep while reciting a phrase that translates to: “My father was a wandering Aramean,” or sometimes, “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (Aram was a region of the Middle East in ancient times.)
That phrase, according to the supplement, represents “the essence of the Jewish experience: a rootless people who have fled persecution time and time again.” The words, the group is instructed to read, “acknowledge that we have stood in the shoes of the refugees.”
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism suggested last year placing a banana among other traditional symbolic foods on the Seder plate. The banana honors 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy of Kurdish background whose lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015 as he fled Syria with his family. His brother, mother and three other children also drowned when their dinghy capsized. Aylan’s father survived and described how his two young sons loved bananas, a luxury in war-torn Syria. He’d brought them a banana as a daily treat.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Shalom in Vancouver, Canada — where Aylan’s family had hoped to eventually settle with a relative — wrote the banana story for the Action Center Haggadah supplement. This year, his Reform congregation will use the banana on Seder plates while welcoming a Kurdish family from Syria that it sponsored. The family’s resident relatives attended a Seder there last year, “so all will be reunited,” he said.
The congregation also sponsored another Syrian family, raising more than $100,000 to help both. Moskovitz expects 200 congregants to join them for Passover. Among the questions for discussion: “Who are the pharaohs of today?” (According to the Passover story, Egypt’s pharaoh enslaved the Jews.)
The HIAS supplement estimates there are 65 million displaced people and refugees globally. That number is to be read aloud at the Seder start.
Knopf expects Afghanis, Iraqis and Syrians, including Jalal, to attend his synagogue’s Seder, along with more than 100 congregants. Because of “the cruelty with which our government is treating the refugee issue,” Knopf said, “we felt a moral obligation and a religious obligation to do our part to care for refugees and to support our friends in the Muslim community.”
Stories of individual refugees are woven into the HIAS supplement, including an accounting of the sparse belongings they brought, coupled with these words: “Just as the story of our own people’s wandering teaches us these lessons time and time again, so, too, do the stories of today’s refugees. The meager possessions they bring with them as they flee reflect the reality of rebuilding a life from so very little.”
Added Meyer: “It shouldn’t be about faith. It should be about helping people who are being persecuted and making sure that they don’t succumb to the same fate the Jewish people did.”