This week I am celebrating Pesach (Passover) with family and friends. It is a joyous holiday in which we commemorate our people’s journey from bondage to freedom. Freedom is a theme that resonates for me, not simply as a philosophical topic for discussion at our seder, which we did, but as a down-to-earth ideal that motivates my daily actions.
These days, I spend my time working with a group of people who have tasted the bitterness of slavery, torture, and hardship, and who long for freedom, the African asylum-seeking community in Israel.
Seven years ago, when I moved to Israel with my three daughters and my husband, who served as United States Ambassador to Israel, I could never have imagined what my life would be like. As a spouse of a diplomat, I worked to foster the relationship between America and Israel through cultural programs and outreach visits to schools and hospitals.
Though our lives were filled with diplomatic responsibilities, I felt that something was missing. Doing my small part to repair the world, tikkun olam, was a value I learned early on from my parents. As a teenager in youth group, I traveled with my best friend, Ann Kaner-Roth, z”l, to Washington, DC, and met powerful role models, including Rabbi David Saperstein, who inspired us to turn our Jewish learning into action.
My oldest daughter and I began to volunteer each week in a dark and dingy gan (childcare center) filled to the brim with the children of asylum-seekers in South Tel Aviv. We were stunned that just 20 minutes from our fancy residence in Herzliya, young children spent their days in overcrowded, unsafe centers. It wasn’t unusual to see 50 children in one small room with one caregiver. We read stories and sang songs with the kids. We held the babies, who would otherwise lay in their cribs for hours on end with no human contact.
Soon I recruited others from the diplomatic and international community. After a tragic winter, when five babies died due to malnutrition and neglect, our focus shifted to humanitarian needs. We started an initiative, Invisible Kids, to provide food, diapers, and infant formula for children at risk.
The journey from bondage to freedom for our people, the Jewish people, took place centuries ago, but for the people I work with each day, the journey is still fresh in their minds. I hear about the pain and fear they carry with them from the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and from the violent dictatorship in Eritrea. I hear the stories of the anguish of watching family members being killed, and the stories of physical torture endured in Sinai as they fell into the grip of human traffickers. Israel is a haven where they can rebuild their lives, while they wait for their home countries to be safe again.
Countries around the world are struggling to find ways to help asylum-seekers, while meeting their international obligations to provide each one with an opportunity to have an asylum claim processed. Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv, long neglected by their government, also deal with the strain of the influx of this impoverished population. Canada and the United States are also helping absorb some of the asylum seekers from Israel.
As the prospect of deportations looms, the stress is palpable. The teachers report children crying at school because their uncle or cousin might be sent away, and women who depend on these men cannot make ends meet when they are imprisoned for refusing deportation to a third country. A 20% withholding rule imposed on their earnings, in addition to taxes on already meager wages, makes it difficult to pay for food and shelter. The fabric of the community is being stretched to the breaking point and no social safety net exists for the developing crisis.
I am encouraged by the wonderful people who are coming forward to help and the courageous leaders in Israel and in North America who are speaking out and demanding that we act in a humane way toward the strangers among us. At our seder, we recalled the teaching, “You should love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I wonder: how can we send fellow human beings back to danger, especially now, as we ourselves celebrate our own people’s freedom, Z’man Cherutaynu.
As we celebrate our journey to freedom, let us work together to help others leave hardship and slavery behind.
Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover!
A version of these comments appeared on the blog of URJ.