They may have not all have known what a Seder was before Sunday, but they understood what it was to struggle. They may not all have been immigrants, but they appreciated the need for diversity. They may have not all have been Jewish, but they stood with others against oppression.
Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish, documented and undocumented, black, white, and every color in between could be found among the hundreds seated at the “A Nation of Immigrants” Community Seder inside a University of Massachusetts Boston Campus Center ballroom. Hosted each year by the Anti-Defamation League, the annual gathering celebrated the differences and common values that united them.
“At a time when immigrants are living in fear and facing harassment every day we acknowledge our responsibility to honor human dignity,” said Robert Trestan, regional director for the ADL New England. “At this community Seder table, we are united with the immigrants and refugees whose lives are in limbo and whose families have been torn apart.”
As it is traditionally celebrated during the Jewish holiday of Passover, the community Seder recounted the Jewish story of exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt to freedom. At each table, attendees took part in the Passover meal with strangers and friends, sang songs, and listened to speakers, while considering the significance of what they ate and drank.
Maria Fernandes, a Dorchester resident, said she didn’t know what a Seder was before she was invited to the ADL celebration, but as an immigrant from Cape Verde, she was touched by the meaning behind the ceremony.
“Right now we’re all coming out of imprisonment with what’s going on in our country nationally,” Fernandes said. “We’re all realizing that we’re all imprisoned, we’re all vulnerable. It really brings home that message. It makes you pause for a moment and really reflect.”
On the tables, parsley symbolized the coming of spring and salt water represented tears shed by the Israelites during their enslavement; matzah was a reminder of poverty that encouraged a commitment to alleviating poverty everywhere.
“It is kind of disturbing when I hear people say, ‘oh, we should be giving preference to ballerinas and sports stars and rocket scientists rather than poor people,’ ” said Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley. “Well, those poor immigrants who have been coming to our country for so many generations are what have made this a great country.”
The first of four questions traditionally read during a Passover Seder was read aloud by a line of people in 22 different languages, from Ugandan to Urdu, Tagalog, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Afrikaans. Each said: “How is this night different from all other nights?”
“More languages, more beauty,” said Rabbi Matthew Soffer of Temple Israel of Boston, who led the Seder. “More ethnicities, more beauty.”
A joint statement signed by mayors from across the Commonwealth acknowledging their commitment to immigrants was also read out loud.
“We will never turn our backs on refugees and immigrants even when others do,” read Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern.
Jose Palma, who is from El Salvador and coordinator of the Massachusetts TPS Committee was among several immigrants who told their stories. He was the son of two farmers, he said, two people who lost everything during the civil war in El Salvador. His parents didn’t have the opportunity to learn to read and write, but knew education was the way their children would have a better life.
Palma eventually arrived in the United States in 1998 and made a life for himself and his family after receiving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 2001. That federal humanitarian immigration program allows immigrants who cannot be safely repatriated to their countries because of civil disruptions or natural disasters to live and work in the United States legally. The Trump administration decided earlier this year to end the program for thousands of Salvadorans next year.
“Imagine after 20 years in this country, my wife and I could be arrested at any minute,” Palma said. “We came out of El Salvador like you came out of Egypt. You are told many times to remember you were slaves in Egypt and at the Seder to feel as if you yourself came out of Egypt. At the Seder, you taste the bitterness of slavery and celebrate freedom.”
Palma finished by paraphrasing the final words of the Seder ceremony, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
He and others with TPS, he said, hope to be a free people in a free land and say: “Next year in Boston.”