Israel, Religion

Why Kids Should Lead Our Seders This Year

We, as adults, are commanded to tell the Pesach story to our children. So what happens when we fail? When, it turns out, they are telling the story to us? Maybe it’s time we let our kids lead our Seders, so we can learn from them?
If Not Now and the rapidly growing movement to stop gun violence in the United States after the tragedy in Florida are just two of the clearest examples of where it is the youth who are teaching the adults what it means to remember that we, too, were slaves in Egypt. That the Jewish people are not supposed to say “if it’s good enough for everyone else, then it’s good enough for us.”
Sadly, it appears that too many of us have grown accustomed to simply telling the story, without then acting for change. This is particularly clear in the circumstances that implicate us most directly. The Occupation, which has now gone beyond 50 years, is the clearest example, but I want to focus on the insufficient Jewish community response to an Israeli government action toward African asylum seekers that will, almost literally, embody that of the ancient Egyptians. The planned deportation of those seeking refuge from slavery and atrocities is a direct and undeniable challenge to even the most liberal of Zionists.
Recently a friend and one of the most thoughtful lay observers I know, Michael Leifman, gave a d’var Torah at Adas Israel in Washington DC on Parshat Mishpatim, in which he asked us to look closely at what we learn in that portion about some of the uncomfortable elements of our tradition. This portion — despite the fact that we had just escaped from slavery — condones and even regulates various forms of slavery.  And the Jewish community continued, for thousands of years, to explain and allow slavery just as their neighbors did. We sometimes fool ourselves by claiming that  it was “more humane” than other kinds of slavery – but there is no such thing as humane slavery, and the Torah version, were it even followed closely, does not even allow for the freeing of slaves who are not Jews.
Michael challenged us to confront these many problems — sins — in our world that that we do not act sufficiently to stop. Over the centuries, as Michael explained, we have not only accepted, but we have implemented many terrible practices.
Of course, alongside of that is much that is love and beauty and wisdom. But we do not build religions and traditions only in order to accentuate the beautiful; we do so in order to deal with the difficult. [pullquote] But we do not build religions and traditions only in order to accentuate the beautiful; we do so in order to deal with the difficult.

Many teens across the country are eloquently asking whether gun violence has now reached a level where we have almost come to accept mass shootings, and gun violence overall, as normal. As tragedies we need to work to arm and defend ourselves from — and of all things, by using more violence — rather than end.  
But I cannot look away from the Israeli Government and mainstream American Jewish response to the horrifying decision on the  sale of African asylum seekers by Israel for a fee to Rwanda and Uganda.  Just as with slavery or, no doubt, the idea of arming teachers and turning schools into combat zones to prevent gun violence, I wonder how many in our generation will look back and say “how could we not have stopped this? How can we have let this happen?”
You can read basic background on the issue here, but in sum, Israel has never established a formal system to handle refugees and asylum-seekers, which works through the UN system. As a result, tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans, fleeing some of the most brutal regimes in the world, have — following in the footsteps of our ancestors escaping Egypt — crossed Sinai to Israel. Only a tiny handful have, 0.056% to be precise, been granted permanent status; the rest have only had temporary status, many held in a detention center, and soon will be deported. The destinations are Rwanda and Uganda, which will reportedly receive $5,000 per person, and Israelis who assist in the effort (given the backlash from some corners, including El Al pilots) may also get compensated. 
Just read the Israeli government’s own propaganda — misleading and false explanations of their responsibilities and lack of a system to process and perhaps integrate those most in need. Hiding this horrifying decision behind the failures of other governments and simply lying about the appropriateness of this action. And then organizations like Federation are willing to simply present facts and not take a stand, saying it is beyond their remit. Which, in the end, serves only to accommodate and conciliate this action. Of course, our community’s leading organizations like AIPAC and others remain entirely silent (some leaders claim to be working behind the scenes, but this also serves more to accommodate and enable these policies than challenge).
Luckily there has been organized resistance from organizations like HIAS and NIF, as well as brave statements from some local Jewish community organizations and leaders, but how can it be that the voices are so few? And I include myself here. I’ve been slow to come around to this issue, to understand the gravity of the situation. But now it is time to recognize that we will soon be condemning tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people to likely persecution, or much worse. [pullquote align=left] But now it is time to recognize that we will soon be condemning tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people to likely persecution, or much worse.

With seders coming in just more than a month, but deportations beginning sooner, the time is now to demand real action and pressure from American Jewish community organizations From Congress, which provides such strong support to Israel. They must be willing to say publicly that this is wrong, so that those bravely fighting back on the streets of Tel Aviv — 20,000 strong this past weekend — and across Israel have the support they need from the American Jewish community.
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We must say that this is an act that our community knows, like slavery, will be an action that we cannot explain or justify in the future. In fact, rather than learning from the story of the Seder, Israel would be sadly switching roles in the story.
If we do not all stand up and act on this, if this is what the Government of Israel and most of our institutions have to teach and to say about how asylum seekers should be treated, then I say this year let us have the kids lead this year’s Seders. We will have given up our place at the head of the table.
Maybe they can finally help us see what the story is about.

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