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Freedom message inspires alternate seders

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The Passover seder used to be an exclusively Jewish affair -- a festive ritual meal primarily designed to remind Jewish participants of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and their physical and spiritual freedom and renewal in the ancient land of Israel.

In recent years, many seders have become more expansive, extrapolating from traditional themes and rituals to embrace other symbols, peoples, cultures and histories. These seders often are held in advance of the actual eight-day Passover holiday, which begins this year on Monday evening, April 14.

One of these alternative seders took place in the White House at the end of March. It was the fifth Passover seder hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama.

"To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity -- a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil rights movement into today," Obama recently remarked.

"For me, personally," he added, "growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home."

The yearning for freedom and a place to call home is familiar to the 53,000 African asylum seekers currently living in Israel, many of whom participate in an annual refugee seder in Tel Aviv.

Most of these asylum seekers are from Eritrea and Sudan, and thousands of them literally walked across Egypt and into Israel, seeking refuge from oppression, war and slavery. The Israeli government, due to a number of factors and influences, has not fully embraced this population and as a result, many refugees experience undue homelessness, unemployment, detention and despair.

Participants at the refugee seder recite readings from a revised Haggadah -- the Passover text that recounts the Hebrew people's Exodus from Egypt -- and raise their voice in songs of freedom in their native languages and in adopted Hebrew. Some of them recount their personal stories of slavery and survival, and in so doing remind Jewish participants and observers of one of the central messages of the Passover seder.

That message, taken from Exodus, 22:20, commands: "And you shall not mistreat a stranger nor shall you oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Many Jewish activists and organizations in Israel and North America have taken up the cause of the African asylum seekers. To this end, they have created a Haggadah supplement for Jewish families to use at their seders and to spur them into taking action in support of the refugees.

In many homes in Canada, that Haggadah supplement will vie for attention with another similarly themed one produced by Ve'ahavta, a Canadian Jewish relief and humanitarian organization based in Toronto. Ve'ahavta's text recommends that seder participants use Passover's freedom narrative to consider all the people worldwide who remain enslaved or oppressed, thousands of years after the Exodus took place.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 D12

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