By Nick Albicocco
Maryland Hillel hosted a “Freedom Seder” Tuesday night, which served as a unique seder that allowed students to discuss immigrants’ and refugees’ rights and how these modern-day issues relate to the events that led to Passover.
While the event was sparse in attendance, with around a dozen people attending the seder in the Hillel conference room, the conversation was interactive and lively throughout the hour and thirty minute dinner.
The night began with a segment from Erin Beiner, a woman who works as a community organizer with HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help Jews escaping Eastern Europe resettle throughout the 20th century.
When the Jewish refugees stopped coming in the mid-1990s, the agency began resettling refugees from other countries. Beiner said the Trump administration has significantly lowered the number of protected refugees in America, compared to previous administrations.
Following the opening pitch about HIAS, each student in attendance was handed a piece of paper and told to write down the names of their ancestors and identify one family member who immigrated to the U.S. Then, they were encouraged to share these family trees with another student before sharing their stories out loud.
Before Beiner wrapped up, she shared the story of Jewish journalist Masha Gessen, who had to flee the Soviet Union in the 1970’s before eventually moving back to Russia with her partner and children. Then, she fled again due to anti-LGBT initiatives by Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin in the 2000’s.
As students began to head for the Hillel dining hall to grab food, Beiner used Gessen’s story to ask students to think about what makes people stay in their country versus what makes them flee.
The abbreviated seder began when the students returned with their food. Following a brief introduction outlining the purpose of Passover, the Seder’s unofficial leader, sophomore elementary education major Ilana Gorod, placed a pair of shoes by the door to acknowledge the fact that “none of us is free until all of us are free.”
The Freedom Seder skipped the reading of the Order of the Seder, the Kadesh and the pointing out of items on the Seder plate, and began by presenting the story of Heln. Heln is a Syrian refugee born to two other Syrian refugees who are seeking asylum in Europe.
TIME magazine recorded the first years of Heln’s life through the eyes of her mother. She was born in Greece and not long after, her family obtained asylum in Estonia before leaving and heading to Germany. The presentation was a sad reminder of the tough lives that refugees live.
Following the video, students shared their reactions to Heln’s story and then discussed the four questions listed in the brief Freedom Seder haggadah that revolved around how our world has changed during our lives.
The Seder ultimately concluded just before 8 p.m. following a discussion of the ten plagues that are currently plaguing our society, including violence, poverty and xenophobia.
Maryland Hillel’s Freedom Seder was a success, according to students in attendance.
“I was just here to observe the event but it was pretty good,” said sophomore physical education major Alec Goodman.
Jesse Vaknin, a junior government politics major, said, “Tonight was really interesting because we learned a lot of different perspectives and moreover how it tied into Judaism and the Jewish values of acceptance.”
Gorod said, “The idea of refugees really relates to the seder, so I wanted to bring that and have people to be able to talk about it here. Each year Hillel puts on a Freedom Seder and that’s why I chose this.”