The Passover story revisited from the lens of the U.S. border

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia has been nominated as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis. He is shown in the temple sanctuary on Friday, May 13, 2016.
Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia has been nominated as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis. He is shown in the temple sanctuary on Friday, May 13, 2016. Olympian file photo

Passover is here, and with it the annual retelling of the ancient story of the Exodus. Jews around the world will sit at the Seder table, eat symbolic foods, and tell the story how our biblical ancestors fled an oppressive system of slavery to attain freedom and liberation.

It is a story that is both millennia old and happening today.

Last month I had the privilege of traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas with a delegation of Jewish clergy — rabbis and cantors — led by HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy organization, and T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights organization. My congregation, Temple Beth Hatfiloh, is a Sanctuary congregation, available and ready to assist immigrants threatened with deportation, and I wanted to see first-hand what is happening at the border. The trip brought us up close and personal with the challenges of the U.S. immigration system and the, frankly, inhuman way we treat our fellow human beings simply because they have a different nationality than ours.

We visited the Otero Detention Center which was, for all intents and purposes, a prison, even though the people being detained behind the barbed wire fences were not criminals, but people legally seeking asylum. We visited a children’s detention center that was less prison-like than Otero, but nonetheless holding children against their will and keeping them separated from their families. We visited the border fence itself, a 28-foot-high barrier that, if President Donald Trump has his way, will be stretched across our whole southern border. We also went into Juarez, Mexico, to visit a shelter for migrants who are making their way north from Central America.

The most shocking and challenging thing wasn’t even on the schedule. Walking across the border from Mexico to the U.S. on the Paso del Norde International Bridge, we saw migrants standing behind temporary fencing below us — families with children. It was only later, seeing the news reports, that we realized this was U.S. Border Patrol holding detained migrants in makeshift cages.

Amid the horrors, we met advocates and heroes who are responding to the enormous injustices. We met with a panel of immigrant legal advocates at Las Americas who are working on behalf of individual migrants and to create broader change in how we as a country address claims of asylum. We visited the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based organization working for border justice. And we went to Annunciation House, which coordinates relief efforts for the dropped and released migrants, to shelter, feed, and transport them to sponsors while they await asylum hearings.

The situation at the border is complex and fluid, and our immigration policy has deeply rooted problems. Those making their way north are mostly families with children, who are fleeing drug cartels, poverty, and violence in their home countries. United States policy in Central America has contributed to conditions causing people to flee. Asylum law is outdated and does not reflect current realities.

Yet most immediately, there is a tragedy in how we are treating our fellow human beings who are simply seeking what we all desire: a life of safety and security.

A key part of the Passover story is the line “In each generation one should see themselves as if they personally left Egypt.” It’s a charge to make the Passover story relevant, to see parallels, both personal and societal.

This year, as I sit around my Seder table, I will tell the story of an ancient people who fled an oppressive and dehumanizing system of injustice and crossed a body of water to a new land with the promise of a better future. And I will be thinking of a contemporary people that desire to do the same.

Passover is a story of the reality, necessity, and challenge of migration, and it is why these contemporary issues of immigration resonate with us as Jews. It is a reminder that the act of migration is a just act, one that must be met with compassion. It also teaches us that just because something is now or has been, it doesn’t mean it has to be.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein has served Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia since 2003. He currently serves as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and is a member of T’ruah.