Because Passover is a refugee story, one synagogue invited refugees to Seder.

Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, is marveling at the length of his to-do list for Tuesday's Passover Seder.

Photo via iStock.

The food still has to be cooked, the Haggadahs proofread, and volunteers wrangled.


"[It's] a little bit crazy, but in a good way," Knopf says.

His stress is understandable. This year, Beth-El is preparing to host over 100 congregants and some special first-time guests: about 50 refugees, most from Afghanistan.

The Seder, first reported by WWBT-12 Richmond, is the congregation's attempt to connect the plight of the millions of refugees fleeing violence and chaos around the world with the central themes of the Passover story, which commemorates the biblical account of the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt.

"Our foundational story, which is the one we celebrate on Passover, is a refugee story," Knopf explains.

Knopf is one of a growing number of American Jewish leaders who are putting refugee stories front and center at their Seders this year.

Photo by Temple Beth-El.

The Passover narrative, which tells the story of a people fleeing slavery under an oppressive regime, strikes a particularly timely chord with Jews who see themes of perseverance in the face of persecution — and an obligation to help those suffering under it in the present — as central not just to their history, but their religious narrative as well.

In 2016, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) began issuing a Haggadah supplement that draws an explicit parallel between the biblical exodus and the global refugee crisis. The addition includes new prayers and readings, as well as four personal stories of individuals who fled persecution in their home countries. Knopf plans to incorporate the supplement into Beth-El's Seder.

“[This is] a really critical moment for the Jewish community to really step up and say with a loud voice that we support welcoming refugees, that we know the dire consequences of shutting the doors of our country to refugees, and we won’t stand for that happening again," says Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS education director and author of the supplement.

Over 300 congregations have signed up for HIAS' Welcome Campaign, joining a statement of support for admitting more refugees into the United States.  

Temple Beth-El is going one step further by inviting refugees to the Seder table.

"This is the first time that we’ve had a faith community say, ‘We are going to raise money to pay for a sit-down dinner for refugees and really welcome them in a very hospitable and really special way," says Kate Ayers, executive director of ReEstablish Richmond, a local refugee aid organization that is co-sponsoring the event with the synagogue.

ReEstablish Richmond's "Taste of Afghanistan" dinner in 2016, where Afghan immigrants shared their cooking with locals and volunteers. Photo by ReEstablish Richmond/Facebook.

About 400 refugees were resettled in Richmond in 2016. Most worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, while others hail from Iraq, Sudan, Bhutan, Burma, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A few of the guests have volunteered to share their personal stories at the dinner.  

One of the scheduled speakers — Abdul Jalal Hashimi, an Afghan translator whose family was repeatedly threatened for his decision to assist American soldiers — told the synagogue's newsletter that he hopes the event will "help people understand each other."

Abdul Jalal Hashimi. Photo by ReEstablish Richmond/Facebook.

The organizers hope to arrange the seating to help the newcomers — many who were doctors and engineers back home — get to know local professionals in their field, as most are still working survival jobs in Richmond.

Since many of the refugees have never met a Jewish person or attended a Passover celebration before, Ayers went family-to-family to explain the significance.

"The way that I was able to connect it the most was just to explain that this is a dinner that is a holiday for the Jewish community, and it’s a holiday where they remember when they as a people had to escape for their life because of persecution, and they want to welcome you as someone who’s experienced that same thing," she says.

Knopf hopes the meal will also be a "holy"  experience for his congregants, many of whom may have never met a Muslim person or a refugee.

ReEstablish Richmond volunteers help recently arrived refugees navigate the Richmond bus system. Photo by ReEstablish Richmond/Facebook.

"Just to see the world expand for people is really powerful," Knopf says.

While he braced for a potential backlash, he says he's received virtually no pushback from his politically diverse congregation. That, he hopes, is a sign that the message of the holiday — and the moment — is resonating.

"There’s a saying in Judaism that a little light dispels a lot of darkness," Knopf says. "So even though we’re just one little community in one little city, I think we’re doing a lot of illuminating for at least this group of people."

More
LUSH

Handmade cosmetics company Lush is putting its money where its mouth is and taking a bold step for climate change action.

On September 20 in the U.S. and September 27 in Canada, Lush will shut the doors of its 250 shops, e-commerce sites, manufacturing facilities, and headquarters for a day, in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike taking place around the world. Lush is encouraging its 5000+ employees "to join this critical movement and take a stand until global leaders are forced to face the climate crisis and enact change."

Keep Reading Show less
Planet
Photo by Annie Bolin on Unsplash

Recent tragic mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have sparked a lot of conversation and action on the state level over the issue of gun control. But none may be as encouraging as the most recent one, in which 145 CEOs signed a letter urging the U.S. Senate to take action at their level.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

The fine folks at Forbes are currently falling all over themselves trying to clean up the mess they created by publishing their 2019 list of 100 Most Innovative Leaders.

The problem: The list included 99 men and one woman. For those not so good with the math, that means according to Forbes, only 1% of the country's most innovative leaders are female.

Have you ever watched a movie that's so abysmally bad that you wonder how it ever even got made? Where you think, "Hundreds and hundreds of people had to have been directly involved in the production of this film. Did any of them ever think to say, 'Hey, maybe we should just scrap this idea altogether?"

That's how it feels to see a list like this. So how did Forbes come up with these results?

Keep Reading Show less
Innovation

There's something delicious and addicting about those trendy recipe videos circulating online. You've seen them before: the quick and beautiful play-by-plays of mouthwatering dishes you wish you were eating at this very moment.

The recipes seem so simple and magical and get you thinking, "Maybe I can make that five-cheese bacon lasagna tonight." And before you know it, you're at the store loading up on Colby-Monterey Jack (or is that just me?).

For some families, though, the ingredients and final product look a little different. As part of Hunger Action Month, the hunger-relief organization Feeding America is using our obsession with cooking videos to highlight the reality many food-insecure families face when they sit down for dinner: hunger, and no food in sight.

By putting a twist on the bite-sized food videos all over the internet, they hope to raise awareness that hunger is an unacceptable reality for too many families.

Keep Reading Show less
Family
True
Gates Foundation: The Story of Food