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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While many of those in attendance, like Brohane, felt it was an occasion to celebrate their arrival in Israel, there was also reference to the problems facing newcomers. As South Sudan is now independent Israel wants to deport illegal immigrants from there, though they did recently win a reprieve until the fall. There are government efforts to stop them from working. And a large detention facility is under construction where the state hopes to incarcerate new arrivals, instead of allowing them free movement as is now the case.

“We may have our freedom, but we do not have our dignity and we do not have justice,” says the event’s Haggadah, referring to these grievances and others.

A British immigrant to Israel, Nic Schlagman, came up with the idea of the “Refugee Seder” four years ago. He recalled: “I was volunteering with refugees, and one of them asked about Passover and we started talking, and I thought: what better way to appreciate the freedom story of Passover than to share a meal with those who had been through journeys like theirs.”

That year he organized the Seder in Lewinsky Park, a popular hangout for new immigrants. It attracted 500 people.

Schlagman, who is now humanitarian coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center nonprofit, has since managed to get numerous organizations to support the annual Seder, including Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Once the service was over and the immigrants tucked in to curry, rice and soup served by volunteers, they spoke of their enthusiasm for the sharing of traditions that was underway. Zak, a 36-year-old Muslim who arrived from Sudan in the fall, said that he was fascinated by the “very holy story” and by the fact that it is also mentioned in his religion (given his illegal status he declined to give his last name).

Amsalem Man, a 35-year-old Sudanese who has been in Israel since December, said that he hoped that experiencing Passover would help him and other immigrants to start acculturating to Israel. “We need to make strong connections between Israeli culture and our culture,” he said.

The food finished, a disco with African beats went on late in to the night. The well-known Israeli musician Idan K was on the turntables.

“Because of what my family went through in the Holocaust,” he shouted to the Forward over the blaring music. “I feel I should give something.”


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