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'We shall overcome'

Jerusalem Reform congregation hosts asylum seekers for 2nd night ‘Freedom Seder’

Kol Haneshama members open their homes to African migrants on the Passover holiday in act of solidarity

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Rabbi Yael Karrie speaking at the the Freedom Seder on Saturday night, March 31, 2018 at Kol Haneshama (Courtesy Kol Haneshama)
Rabbi Yael Karrie speaking at the the Freedom Seder on Saturday night, March 31, 2018 at Kol Haneshama (Courtesy Kol Haneshama)

A crowd of more than 250 people, including Israelis and African asylum seekers, gathered Saturday night for a “Freedom Seder” at Jerusalem’s Kol Haneshama synagogue as an act of solidarity with the Africans who face deportation.

“It was the congregation’s idea,” said Rabbi Yael Karrie, the spiritual leader of Kol Haneshama, of the festive meal. “This synagogue is one of the pioneering congregations in issues of asylum seekers and they’ve been dealing with it very intensively.”

Karrie estimated that about one-third of the attendees at the second Seder — an anomaly in the one-Seder Land of Israel — were asylum seekers from Jerusalem, joined by synagogue members and members of several other local synagogues, some of whom had also hosted African migrants at their own family Seders the previous evening.

The evening was hosted by the Reform temple, which is known for its activism, and co-sponsored by the Jerusalem African Community Center (JACC), the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and Miklat Israel, an organization focused on helping asylum seekers and their families established by rabbis Susan Silverman, Nava Hefetz and Tamara Schagas.

Members of Kol Haneshama traveled regularly to Holot, the recently closed detention center in the southern Negev desert where many asylum seekers were held. They also work with various organizations involved in protesting the government’s decision to expel asylum seekers from Israel.

“It was an evening for them, for the asylum seekers,” said Karrie. “It was important that the evening wasn’t about feeling good about our community, but answering their needs.”

On March 12, the High Court of Justice temporarily froze the deportations and ordered the government to address some of the legal issues surrounding its expulsion policy.

The state has asked the court-ordered deadline be moved until April 9 to submit its explanation regarding the legality of its controversial plan to deport African migrants and indefinitely incarcerate those who refuse to leave.

The deportation policy offers each asylum seeker $3,500 and a plane ticket to a third country, which are officially unnamed, but have been reported as Uganda and Rwanda. Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told The Times of Israel that they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.

There are approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012, illegally crossing the border from Egypt. The Africans say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return.

Israel considers the vast majority of asylum seekers to be job seekers — economic migrants whose lives were not in danger in their countries of origin — and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. Israeli officials commonly refer to them as “infiltrators.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that the “flood” of migrants was worse than Sinai terrorists, and that the asylum seekers threaten Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Places with little hope

Karrie joined Kol Haneshama as their rabbi last summer, but her previous position was in the Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip, which were often the target of rockets and terror attacks from Gaza.

“I have experience with places that have little hope,” she said, “and that’s what I was thinking about last night. The members of Nahal Oz, the kibbutz that’s so close to Gaza, they simply try to do things for people in Gaza. After the 2014 war, one member brought in 50 farmers from Gaza to learn farming methods at Nahal Oz. It was these little things that people do, not the government, that give you hope.”

Each Freedom Seder participant received a fresh flower upon entering the synagogue, which was then placed in a vase, allowing each table to build its own flower arrangement.

“The idea was to create a beginning of making something together,” said Karrie. “To create the feeling that we’re all in this story.”

The evening, which included a performance by an Eritrean band from Tel Aviv and a modified Seder led by Karrie, also featured three testimonies by asylum seekers, who told their stories of escaping their homelands and making their way to Israel.

Karrie spoke about the allegory of the four sons from the Haggadah, a reminder, she said, that each person has in them the ability to behave badly, to be wise, to be simple, and to not know how to ask questions.

“Tonight, we’re trying to be simple and ask questions,” she said “We can’t think of ourselves as being in the same place as the asylum seekers, because we’re not; we don’t know what that experience is like.”

The stories of the asylum seekers and the story of the Haggadah feel very similar, said Berhane Nagasi, one of the leaders of Jerusalem’s asylum community. “It helps to do things like this, it makes us feel loved, and we know that there’s all kinds of people out there, including people who want to help us.”

@berhanenagasi #freedomseder

Posted by Refugees in Israel: Voices of Hope on Saturday, 31 March 2018

Sirnei, one of the asylum seekers at the seder, told the story of her own escape from Eritrea with her husband, a soldier who ran away rather than serve in the Eritrean army for the rest of his life.

Their story was a familiar one for asylum seekers. They escaped to Ethiopia and then to Sudan before making their way to Egypt, where they were put in jail.

It took many months and large sums of ransom money before they finally reached Israel, where they were “greeted with water and kindness” by Israeli soldiers at the border fence, said Sirnei, who told her story in fairly fluent Hebrew.

Sirnei, one of three asylum seekers who spoke at the Freedom Seder (Courtesy Kol Haneshama)

“I’ve met many great people in Israel, except for those at the Interior Ministry,” she said, a comment that was met with laughs from the audience.

She doesn’t plan much, she said, for herself, her husband or their children.

“I don’t know what will be tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t buy pots and pans. It scares me that my husband will be deported. We just want a country that is democratic, that has rights, that will give us refuge. We want your help.”

The community completed the Seder with the end-of-Sabbath havdalah ceremony, a prayer and a communal singing of “We Shall Overcome.”

“The whole night was for them to know that we’re here for them,” said Karrie. “We cooked for them, and talked to them and hugged them and danced with them. You can’t do a lot, so you do what you can do.”

The efforts to aid African asylum seekers will continue with other events in Jerusalem, including an April 9 concert at the YMCA. More details can be found on the Miklat Israel Facebook page.

There’s also a Facebook campaign aimed at Israelis titled “Refugees in Israel: Voices of Hope,” with asylum seekers themselves speaking directly to the Israeli public with their stories.

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