Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, is marveling at the length of his to-do list for Tuesday’s Passover Seder.
The food still has to be cooked, the Haggadahs proofread, and volunteers wrangled.
“[It’s] a little bit crazy, but in a good way,” Knopf says.
His stress is understandable. This year, Beth-El is preparing to host over 100 congregants and some special first-time guests: about 50 refugees, most from Afghanistan.
The Seder, first reported by WWBT-12 Richmond, is the congregation’s attempt to connect the plight of the millions of refugees fleeing violence and chaos around the world with the central themes of the Passover story, which commemorates the biblical account of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.
“Our foundational story, which is the one we celebrate on Passover, is a refugee story,” Knopf explains.
Knopf is one of a growing number of American Jewish leaders who are putting refugee stories front and center at their Seders this year.
The Passover narrative, which tells the story of a people fleeing slavery under an oppressive regime, strikes a particularly timely chord with Jews who see themes of perseverance in the face of persecution — and an obligation to help those suffering under it in the present — as central not just to their history, but their religious narrative as well.
In 2016, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) began issuing a Haggadah supplement that draws an explicit parallel between the biblical exodus and the global refugee crisis. The addition includes new prayers and readings, as well as four personal stories of individuals who fled persecution in their home countries. Knopf plans to incorporate the supplement into Beth-El’s Seder.
“[This is] a really critical moment for the Jewish community to really step up and say with a loud voice that we support welcoming refugees, that we know the dire consequences of shutting the doors of our country to refugees, and we won’t stand for that happening again,” says Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS education director and author of the supplement.
Over 300 congregations have signed up for HIAS’ Welcome Campaign, joining a statement of support for admitting more refugees into the United States.
Temple Beth-El is going one step further by inviting refugees to the Seder table.
“This is the first time that we’ve had a faith community say, ‘We are going to raise money to pay for a sit-down dinner for refugees and really welcome them in a very hospitable and really special way,” says Kate Ayers, executive director of ReEstablish Richmond, a local refugee aid organization that is co-sponsoring the event with the synagogue.
About 400 refugees were resettled in Richmond in 2016. Most worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, while others hail from Iraq, Sudan, Bhutan, Burma, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A few of the guests have volunteered to share their personal stories at the dinner.
One of the scheduled speakers — Abdul Jalal Hashimi, an Afghan translator whose family was repeatedly threatened for his decision to assist American soldiers — told the synagogue’s newsletter that he hopes the event will “help people understand each other.”
The organizers hope to arrange the seating to help the newcomers — many who were doctors and engineers back home — get to know local professionals in their field, as most are still working survival jobs in Richmond.
Since many of the refugees have never met a Jewish person or attended a Passover celebration before, Ayers went family-to-family to explain the significance.
“The way that I was able to connect it the most was just to explain that this is a dinner that is a holiday for the Jewish community, and it’s a holiday where they remember when they as a people had to escape for their life because of persecution, and they want to welcome you as someone who’s experienced that same thing,” she says.
Knopf hopes the meal will also be a “holy” experience for his congregants, many of whom may have never met a Muslim person or a refugee.
“Just to see the world expand for people is really powerful,” Knopf says.
While he braced for a potential backlash, he says he’s received virtually no pushback from his politically diverse congregation. That, he hopes, is a sign that the message of the holiday — and the moment — is resonating.
“There’s a saying in Judaism that a little light dispels a lot of darkness,” Knopf says. “So even though we’re just one little community in one little city, I think we’re doing a lot of illuminating for at least this group of people.”