Staff Seder: Liberation and the Work of JFCS East Bay

April 27, 2016
By Lauren Greenberg

For an agency that has been around since 1877, JFCS East Bay’s work feels more relevant than ever. With the global refugee crisis, mounting economic inequality, and the aging population, demand for our services is high. We will be resettling at least 150 refugees this year and have launched a crowdfunding campaign—the Refugees Welcome Fund—to help support this work.

Our agency’s greatest resource is our incredible staff, many of whom are motivated by their own experiences of liberation. During our staff Passover Seder, we were privileged to hear from a few of these remarkable co-workers.

“I was born in El Salvador,” began Iliana Barillas, one of our bilingual Early Childhood Mental Health Specialists. “When I was a child, El Salvador was in the midst of a violent civil war. Anyone suspected of being a rebel was in danger. People would be disappeared or murdered. And if a friend was killed, people were so afraid of being labeled as a rebel that they couldn’t even go to the funeral. There was no work; there was no life for us. My father left for the U.S. first, and then my mom and I after him. I was five. I remember having to hide in the cargo compartment of a bus as we made the journey. So I would stay quiet, my mother gave me a sleeping pill. I can still taste its bitterness.”

Fortunately, Iliana and her family made it to the United States safely. “Now I feel so blessed, so free, and so safe to be living here.” Iliana has two children and became a U.S. citizen last year. Her story reminds us of the dangers people flee to start their lives over in a new country.

Pheobe Jones, our Volunteer Services Assistant, rose next to speak. “When I was a sophomore in college, I didn’t feel like I had a voice. I didn’t know what I needed or how to ask for what I needed. I left school and moved back home. I felt completely tied up in my own head. Shortly afterward, I was hired as the volunteer coordinator for the local Susan G. Komen Foundation office, and that kick-started my passion for supporting volunteers and nonprofit work. I was able to get out of myself and came to understand how important it is to offer opportunities for others to give back and process their experiences. It’s also when I found my voice.”

When thinking about how our families or ancestors journeyed toward freedom, our Senior Director of Finance & Administration, Adrienne Torf, offered a characteristically profound and heartfelt interpretation: “Like many children who are adopted, I don’t know who my biological parents were, so I have nothing to fill in the narrative of where I came from. However, family can become the people we choose and want around us. When I look around at all of you and hear from you and see the extraordinary work we do, I think that we are also like a family.”

She was right. As we looked around our Seder table, co-workers were smiling at each other, nodding in agreement, and sharing in mutual recognition of how lucky we are to be family and working together.

During the holiday of Passover, Jews are asked to reflect on our history of oppression and slavery, and to connect that to those who are oppressed, disenfranchised, or enslaved today. It’s an exercise aimed at moving us to action on behalf of the most vulnerable in our community: it is the core of our work at JFCS East Bay. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Chag Pesach Sameach.

— Lauren Greenberg is JFCS East Bay’s Marketing & Development Assistant