In a world in which freedom is taken for granted by those who have it, and longed for by those deprived of it – the message of Passover compels us to turn our compassion into action. Next week, Jewish communities all over the world will partake in an age old tradition of commemorating the Jewish exodus from Egypt. We will be remembering that we “were once slaves in Egypt” and recalling our oppression and desperation to escape our tormentors to freedom – to the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel. The story is retold from generation to generation so that we never take freedom for granted, even while in many cases thereafter, freedom was removed from our grasp.
Since then, Jewish communities have integrated a passion for striving to build communities and nations foundationally based on freedom and democracy. In America, it was the Jewish community who marched alongside black communities in the civil rights movement. Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle. They participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Jewish reform movement were arrested with Martin Luther King Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964. Most famously, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with King in his 1965 March on Selma.
One FSWC member said to me, “I lived in New York through the Freedom Marches and the civil rights movement. I marched in Manhattan supporting the movement. Many Jews supported the black civil rights movement, some even risked their life in the South when they went to march alongside them.” At the core of Passover, it is our tradition to stand for and with those who are oppressed and to liberate people – no matter who they are from social injustice.
Similarly, Jewish women and men have championed feminism in America and around the world. In 1960, American women were limited in almost every respect and rightfully demanded fairness and equality. Gloria Steinem, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, became the most widely recognized leader and spokeswoman of the modern feminist movement. Identifying herself of Jewish descent, she helped launch the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Coalition of Labour Union Women, Choice USA and the Women’s Action Alliance.
There is no greater showcase for equality for women than Israel’s first and only female prime minister, Golda Meir – she was only the fourth prime minister of Israel, elected in 1969 – at a time when a female prime minister would have been impossible. There was no greater role model for women around the world than Golda Meir who worked tenaciously for the betterment of her people.
Passover teaches Jewish communities worldwide to be compassionate, kind and caring in the communities in which they reside. While we make up less than 3% of the population in some communities in which we reside around the world, our philanthropy is appreciated. We are ingrained with an ethos of helping the impoverished and the sick; we regularly assist refugees and the downtrodden and we are compelled to help advance education and science for the betterment of humanity.
It is interesting to note that 881 people have been awarded Nobel Prizes, of whom 196 – 22.2% were Jewish or of Jewish descent – despite the fact the world’s Jewish population is less than 0.2% of the global population. It is a reflection of the Jewish ethos to work for the betterment of the societies in which they reside in and to help advance humanity – to “liberate” humanity from the social and physical challenges inflicted upon it.
Mostly, Passover imbues us with the passion and identity to act whenever necessary. We are proud of the compassionate actions undertaken by the State of Israel – despite its minuscule size – it is a country that regularly comes to the assistance of its neighbours and beyond. This week, the horrific gassing of Syrian civilians has elicited condemnation from Israeli leaders. Since the start of the massacre in Syria, Israel has set up field hospitals to aid the injured coming across its border. In fact, Israeli organizations like Just Beyond our Border, IsraelGives and Israel Flying Aid have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid Syrian children in the recent gassing attack. In December, we gathered a group of Holocaust survivors in front of our offices in Toronto to condemn the slaughter in Syria in front of major media.
Israel, as the embodiment of the Jewish nation, even has its own rescue and aid agency called “IsraAid” and over the last fifteen years and more, it has helped communities in South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Kenya, the Philippines and more. My favorite action to aid was during the tragic earthquake in Haiti. Israel was the first country on the ground, immediately setting up a massive field hospital to aid desperate Haitians who required medical attention, food and water. In 27 days, Israel also provided post trauma assessments, physical rehabilitation, social programming and youth leaderships, women empowerment, agriculture training and more.
Some have said that since the exodus from Egypt, “freedom has been spoken with a Hebrew accent” – that it had set a precedent for all people. In fact, I would argue that freedom must be spoken with a universal human accent. What Passover taught us is to “Pay it forward” – to try and make the world a better place for ourselves and for everyone. For humanity to survive, for freedom to breathe, we all have to work together with kindness and compassion.
These are the values we teach every single day at the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.