Once we were slaves . . .

May 01, 2014
By Avi Rose

Like many American Jews, I love Passover. In addition to the warmth of gathering people together, it offers the opportunity to remember, affirm, and transmit core Jewish values that I embrace.

This year, we organized our third annual Seder for those JFCS East Bay staff members who want to participate. Having an office Seder came about in response to people’s desire to learn more about Jewish religion and culture, while also providing a context for our highly multicultural staff to reflect on and share our own stories of slavery and freedom.

So it came to be that on a recent weekday morning, a week before Passover actually began, forty-five of us—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’i, and others—sat together around a large rectangle of tables set with an array of seder plates and ritual foods. Every year, as we make our way through the Hagaddah, we stop at each of the Four Cups to hear someone share their family’s story of moving from Yetziat Mitzrayim—places of narrowness and persecution—to places of freedom. Over the past three years, we have heard stories about leaving Afghanistan in the middle of the night, surviving Nazi terror in Hungary, going into exile from Chile, escaping slavery in the American South, and more. We have heard stories of Jews sharing a Passover meal in the former Soviet Union without fully knowing what it was about. We have asked many questions. We have sung together. We have reflected on how all this relates to our work, particularly with new refugees and others whose lives have been disrupted by trauma. We have sat together in silence, simply taking it all in.

It is rare and wonderful to have such an experience at work. I feel deeply fortunate to be part of it all, working with such a spirited, thoughtful, and diverse group of people. And I feel gratified that so many people have told me that they’re already looking forward to our Seder next year.

The following week at my family’s Seder, we read from the same Hagaddah and likewise stopped at each of the Four Cups to share stories. My husband, Ron, has often talked about his parents, Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. But this year, he shared the insight that his father—who survived for years in a succession of labor camps—had actually been a slave. It was stunning, yet entirely accurate, to apply this terminology to someone in our own family. Truly, the story of Passover is not remote, occurring only in some ancient time. Avodim hayinu: Once we were slaves, now we are free. May it be so, and may we all act in accordance with Passover’s imperatives during the entire year.