For AJC Westchester/ Fairfield and Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, hosting a seder in honor of immigrants from countries in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, as well as majority Muslim nations, was a natural outgrowth of long-standing interfaith outreach efforts.
“As a global leader in interfaith engagement, AJC cultivates respected and respectful alliances at the highest levels of national and international religious leadership,” said Scott Richman, regional director, AJC Westchester/Fairfield. “Through partnerships and coalitions, we combat anti-Semitism as well as hatred targeting other religious and ethnic groups. With this global mandate, AJC Westchester/Fairfield sees building bridges of understanding and promotion of our shared values as core tenets of our work. The “We Are All Immigrants Seder” fit perfectly into that goal as we reached across faith and ethnic lines to teach the founding story of the Jewish people, to showcase the values that emanate from that story, and which have been taught and re-taught to our children for thousands of years, to showcase the commonalities among our traditions and backgrounds, and to show solidarity with our neighbors who sometimes may feel unwelcome in this country.”
While last year’s interfaith seder brought together Jews and Muslims, this year’s event made a point of inviting members of Latino and other immigrant communities, said Richard S. Cohen, co-chair of the Interfaith/Intergroup Committee of AJC Westchester/Fairfield.
“We’ve developed strong relationships with mosques,” said Cohen. “This is the first time we’re honoring other groups. We’re honoring and supporting fragile communities because we as Jews identify with suffering. We have a duty to help repair the world.”
The concept had been in the works since the last presidential election, when New York Democratic State Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer suggested that AJC sponsor a program in honor of immigrant communities. In turn, that translated into the March 12 seder honoring and inviting immigrants from Latino, Caribbean, African and Muslim communities.
What made this interfaith seder different from all other seders is “we wanted to demonstrate the reality that, except for native Americans, we are a nation of immigrants,” said Cohen. “And given Jews’ inherent empathy for the plight of other minorities, we at AJC wanted to honor our fellow immigrants and have them understand that they have many friends and supporters and like all of us are a vibrant part of our region.”
Before the seder began, the 135 attendees went into Beth El’s sanctuary and stood in a semicircle around the bima to say their names and where they, or their ancestors, had come from. Countries of origin included Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Jamaica, Paraguay, Haiti and Cuba; China, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Pakistan; Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovenia, Germany, Belgium, England, Scotland and Ireland; Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Senegal, Ghana, and Burkina Faso, among others.
“We’re honoring the mosaic of minorities that our country represents,” said Cohen.
Passover’s compelling story of suffering and slavery, struggle and redemption lends itself to interfaith and outreach efforts.
Rabbi David Schuck of Beth El Synagogue Center, a Conservative congregation in New Rochelle, reminded those gathered that “Jewish people came from slaves.” He described the items on the seder plate, which included traditional symbols like matzah and hardboiled eggs, but also carrots for inclusion and burnt potato skins to represent survivors of the Holocaust. He stressed that the purpose of the seder was to “engender action” and that they all had “an obligation to bring healing.”
Guests at the seder, where seating had been designed to mix Jews, Muslims, Christians and immigrants of all faiths, read from a Haggadah that had been developed to specifically address themes of intolerance and suffering. Besides passages that highlighted personal stories of refugees and immigrants, including a Syrian refugee and Jewish, Latino, and African immigrants, the four children included an activist one as well as an indifferent one. There were readings from the Quran and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
For Martha Lopez Hanratty, participating in a seder honoring immigrants had particular meaning. “It’s very special, at a time when we feel fear,” she said. “This makes me feel very supported.”
Similarly, Rifas Hameed, who came from Sri Lanka, said, “I believe all immigrants should come together. That way we’re stronger and look after each other.”
There was an undeniably pointed and political message to the gathering. Cohen specifically mentioned the change to the Mission Statement of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which had removed the phrase, “a nation of immigrants,” in late February.
Added Rabbi Schuck, “We have to be afraid of the ‘indifferent child’. These are times that call for action.”
The message resonated with attendees, like Penda Guisse, originally from Senegal. “We’re all God’s children,” she said. “I always believe we should get together and stick together.”
As Joan Saslow, who facilitates Latino-Jewish relations for AJC Westchester/Fairfield, said, “This is a moment of fear and injustice for immigrant groups. It’s struck particularly hard to the immigrant Latino communities, which hit us in our Jewish hearts. At the time of reading of the Exodus, it’s a story we share. We commit as Jews as your partners. This will be a call to action. We are all immigrants. It’s the American story.”