Out of Egypt

חג שמח, or Happy Passover! 

This morning, as I was sipping coffee and working on my computer at my kitchen table, I was suddenly aware of the smell of smoke. I jumped up and rushed to the window, worried I would find my backyard on fire (especially considering I saw a neighboring apartment catch fire the day before!). But it was not my backyard, it was the neighboring Synagogue's, and the flames were contained in a small BBQ pit. Children and men with kippahs on their heads gathered around the fire tossing in loaves of bread, and bags of flour as they rid the synagogue of chametz (leaven) or any food including leaven such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. Some Jews also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes. According to my roommate (a verifiable source) this is a traditional Jewish custom of Passover. In fact, it's even illegal for stores to sell chametz during Passover (of course it's Israel, so there's always some stores that find a way around this rule).

This tradition of abstaining from chametz comes from the Biblical story of the Exodus, in which God led the Jews to freedom from the Egyptians. It's said that, after God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians, the Pharaoh finally let the Jewish slaves go. They left in such a hurry, they did not even have time to let their bread rise, hence the week of eating unleavened foods. Led by Moses, and with a few important stories and incidents in between, the Jews eventually made it into Israel and back to the temple in Jerusalem. 

(c) Steve Jeter
And while this year I'm in Israel, I had a very atypical Passover experience. Currently there are over 40,000 refugees who fled their countries (mainly Eritrea, and Sudan), and made their own exodus by land, through Egypt, and into Israel. They come here fleeing dictators, and regimes, war, and famine. But life in Israel has proved difficult and many of them end up living on the streets, desperate for work, food, and money. For the last couple of years, ARDC (African Refguee Development Center), has worked to commemorate this modern day exodus during the Passover holiday. This year, like the previous years, they organized a Passover Seder in Levinsky Park where the majority of the refugees "live."

I went to the seder and volunteered, putting up tables and chairs, and passing out plates of food to over 300 people. Instead of doing the typical ceremony that accompanies the dinner, a speech was given in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Tigrinya. The speech briefly explained the history of Passover and then went on to say this: "Today tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters are fleeing countries run by modern day Pharaohs. Fleeing brutal dictators and organized murder, running for their lives. Many of you here today made the same journey across the same desert. You have arrived here in Israel hoping to find freedom and rebuild your lives. The question we have today is where is our Moses? Who will lead us all to freedom?"

Throughout the speech, many of the refugees seemed skeptical, choosing to stand on the outskirts instead of taking seats at the table. Things like this don't usually happen in Levinsky Park, and rarely are events organized specifically for asylum seekers. Except for maybe mass deportation. The skepticism increased when they saw all the cameras documenting the event. Many hid their faces confused as to what the photographs would be used for, worrying they might lead to police detainment or worse.

But the draw of food was too strong for the hungry bellies. After the volunteers began passing out dinners, the circle was closed and everyone near came to eat. It was hard seeing people so filled with hunger. While there's a high rate of poverty and homelessness in D.C., there's also numerous social services to counteract it; homeless shelters, soup kitchens etc. Unfortunately in Israel these services don't exist for this population.

Eventually, stomachs were filled and the mood lifted. The music got louder and the dancing began. Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Israelis and Americans became entangled with one another as arms waved, feet kicked, and hips swayed to the beat. It was fun to dance with everyone and feel like, maybe just for for five minutes, nothing else mattered!