NEW YORK – As families around the world gather on Monday for the Passover Seder and read the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, HIAS, an organization dedicated to helping refugees, seeks to remind the Jewish community of those still seeking to rebuild their lives today. HIAS has created a supplement to the traditional Passover Haggada that reflects on the experiences of modern-day refugees.
HIAS, which uses the motto “Welcome the Stranger, Protect the Refugee,” was originally founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in resettling in the United States. After the State of Israel was established, HIAS’s activities expanded to include the larger refugee population.
“We read in the Haggada each year that each person is supposed to see himself or herself as having personally gone out of Egypt,” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, HIAS’s vice president of community engagement, told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s not just a retelling of the exodus, it’s not just a remembering, it’s re-experiencing, reliving it.”
As Jews around the world envision this on Monday night, HIAS wants them to make the connection to modern day refugees fleeing persecution and attempting to find freedom. The Haggada supplement, which includes pictures, is aimed at giving Jews the opportunity to weave these refugees’ personal stories into their Seder.
“Passover is our foundational story of being refugees,” Rosenn said. “The reason that is given in the Torah for our being commanded to welcome the stranger, protect the stranger and love the stranger is: ‘Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”
HIAS has been distributing the Haggada supplement through some 3,000 rabbis, as well as with the help of multiple Jewish organizations who have partnered with them. But beyond just raising awareness, Rosenn told the Post, HIAS hopes to move people to action.
“The Seder is not just about telling our own story,” she said. “What you do after the Seder is probably even more important than the Seder itself.”
“When we stand up from the Seder table, we want people to feel a sense of commitment to work in support of today’s refugees,” she added.
HIAS’s work has been made more difficult in recent months since President Donald Trump issued his travel bans and suspended the refugee program in the United States. The group, which has seen refugees they were helping turned away, has decided to take action and is currently pursuing a lawsuit in a federal court in Maryland challenging the executive order.
“The policies that are coming out of the administration are devastating and we are in a historic moment,” Rosenn told the Post. “The United States has not closed its doors to refugees like this since the 1920s and we really stand at risk of becoming a country that is not living true to its foundational values.”
“It’s also a hopeful time because we’ve also seen the Jewish community, often in partnership with communities of other faiths, really rise up,” she added. “There is increased widespread support. That is a source of hope for the way that we can really continue to work.”