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Blending Immigration and Passover

March 29, 2012 By:
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Marina Merlin, a one-time refugee who now works for HIAS, embraces two child refugees from Burma.

A Jew from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Philadelphia with two small children; a teenage victim of domestic abuse from Guatemala; a survivor of the Rwandan genocide; and an undocumented immigrant from Bolivia. These four immigrants all received assistance from local Jewish community members and have, in turn, found ways to help others.

This year, local Jewish families may choose to weave these immigrants' diverse stories into the fabric of their Passover seders on April 6 and 7.

The Greater Philadelphia Jewish Coalition on Immigration has prepared a set of readings that highlight each of these four individuals' struggles and triumphs. The prose selections are meant to be recited before drinking each of the seder's four cups of wine.

The reading for the first cup quotes Marina Merlin, who came to the United States in 1992 and was helped by HIAS, the refugee resettlement agency. She now works for that organization, assisting other refugees as they resettle in the Philadelphia area.

"What struck me in this country was this institution of volunteers. It doesn't exist in Russia," she is quoted saying in the reading.

"For me, everyone is equal, wherever they are from," she continued. "Why would it be right to just help Jews immigrate and not help other people? This country was built by immigrants."

The seder supplement represents just a part of the new coalition's efforts to tie the issue of immigration to the Passover holiday and the themes of slavery and freedom.

The coalition is also set to launch a monthlong series of programs in April under the banner, "Why Immigration Matters: A Month of Jewish Reflection, Study and Action."

"It's hard not to make the link," Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Congregation Mishkan Shalom said, referring to the connection between Passover and the immigration issue. "Immigration -- that's what the Passover story is about. That is our formative myth. It just feels like a no-brainer to me."

Mishkan Shalom, a member of the New Sanctuary Movement, a network of churches, mosques and synagogues that assist undocumented families, will be holding a Shabbat service focusing on immigration on April 21.

The Roxborough congregation is one of approximately 10 synagogues across the region that responded to the coalition's appeal to hold services, host speakers and foster discussions related to "Why Immigration Matters."

In addition to the seder readings, the coalition has prepared an online packet, hiaspa.org/resources/resources-why-immigration-matters, put together by rabbinical student Tamara Cohen. It contains Jewish sources related to immigration, information on particular service projects to help families and material about how to schedule speakers.

"Why Immigration Matters" is the coalition's first major public initiative.

The group was formed in November, spearheaded by HIAS Pennsylvania and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Other groups involved include the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women.

The effort was largely a reaction to a spate of bills introduced in Harrisburg spearheaded by State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Conservative Republican lawmaker from near Pittsburgh.

The more than dozen bills are collectively known as "National Security Begins at Home."

The proposed changes to current Pennsylvania law include bills that would deny birth certificates to children born to parents without proper papers, make English the official language of the commonwealth, and force employers to check the immigration status of employees using E-Verify, a system that immigrant advocates contend is error-prone.

Critics have contended that these laws are draconian and seek to dehumanize both legal and illegal immigrants.

The group is trying to depoliticize the issue, according to organizers. Although the "National Security Begins at Home" laws are being pushed by Republicans, both major parties are responsible for the current climate and the lack of progress on meaningful immigration reform, said Philippe Weisz, co-chair of the coalition and managing attorney at HIAS.

"Each party has failed by failing to humanize the issue," said Weisz. "Each party uses statistics, but in all those discussions, there is a failure to look at the individual behind the numbers and that is the goal of the project."

The "Why Immigration Matters" digital packet also includes a letter to Pennsylvania lawmakers that opposes the proposed Harrisburg laws.

The coalition is trying to collect as many signatures as possible, and JCRC plans to send them along to politicians in Harrisburg.

"Immigration should be addressed at the federal level, where it can be applied uniformly across the country, rather than piecemeal with different rules applicable in different states," the statement reads.

Weisz said that not all the groups and individuals in the coalition agree on what's needed as part of immigration reform, but all agree that a federal approach must be taken.

Immigration lawyer Jane Goldblum, who is active in the coalition, said she wants more Jews to understand that most undocumented immigrants don't necessarily choose to break laws; there often is no legal way for millions of immigrants to pursue permanent residence status or obtain a work visa due to the peculiarities of the system.

"I think it is really important for people to understand why we have so many illegal aliens and why it is so important for us to have immigration reform. It is also important to understand the value that immigrants bring to this country," said Goldblum, whose firm is based in Jenkintown.

Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro, who teaches at Temple University and is also part of the coalition, pointed out that there are several instances in the Torah where it states, albeit in slightly different wording, that "you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt."

Harris-Shapiro is slated to speak about immigration at Shabbat services on the first day of Passover at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, where she is a member. She also plans to speak separately to high school students at the synagogue.

"That is the moral lesson learned in Tanach," she said, referring to the Bible. "We can't be dehumanizing people in our midst."

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