Immigrants Celebrate Special Israeli Seder

African Refugees Know Meaning of Passover Story Firsthand

Free for Now: African immigrants wave matzos at a special Seder in Tel Aviv. Although they are Christians or Muslims, many of the newcomers experienced the Passover story firsthand in escaping from dictatorship and destitution in their homelands.
nathan jeffay
Free for Now: African immigrants wave matzos at a special Seder in Tel Aviv. Although they are Christians or Muslims, many of the newcomers experienced the Passover story firsthand in escaping from dictatorship and destitution in their homelands.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 06, 2012.
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Why was the night of April 4 different from all other nights in Tel Aviv? Because the illegal immigrants who ordinarily collect the city’s trash, wash dishes in its restaurants, and clean floors in its hotels, sat as Israelis served them dinner.

For Africans who have come to Israel — some 50,000 since 2005 — Passover is starting to acquire a very poignant significance. This was their Seder.

While Jews often struggle with the Haggadah’s instruction to “see themselves” as if they personally left Egypt, for the 600 Muslim and Christian Africans at this Seder, it takes little imagination.

Having eaten his fill of matzo, Henok Brohane, 26, said that he felt just like an ancient Israelite. He left Egypt just seven days before the Seder, dodging soldiers there who shoot at Africans on the run like him, and praying that he would not find himself held ransom or beaten by traffickers as many do.

“I feel something good — I don’t know how to describe it,” he told the Forward. “As Moses brought them by the means of God, we prayed to God in the desert and made it here safely.”

Abdu Alle, a Sudanese 28-year-old who crossed the Egypt-Israel border seven months ago, spoke of a similar connection to the Exodus. “”It’s an important story because it remembers people just like us,” he said.

For Brohane, a Christian who fled poverty and a culture of religious persecution by the state in his native Eritrea, Israel is a modern promised land.

“When we reached the Israeli border from the Sinai, soldiers received us, gave us food and shoes, and took us to hospital where they checked everything,” he said.

On April 4, it took just a few minutes for the smell of hundreds of matzos being waved in the air to overpower the odor of urine that usually lingers in Tel Aviv’s grimmest green space, Lewinsky Park. A text about the matzo’s symbolism in the Israelite journey to freedom was read in Arabic, Tigrinya, Hebrew and English.

The 600-plus guests at the open-to-all event were mostly Eritrean Christians and Sudanese Muslims. Out of deference to the latter — and to save costs — there was no wine, but rather soft drinks. The Haggadah placed on tables, and read over microphones from the front, was customized to emphasize the relevance of Passover to them.

“Today tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters are fleeing countries run by modern day Pharaohs,” it declares. “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.”


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