Alula Tsadik, a lithe black man in dreds, wearing a red-and-black-striped poncholike tallit, pounded his chest and moaned, "Mama," as he slowly circled the room at UCLA's Hillel.
His tuneless melody, meant to capture the pain and horror of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, was the first of many performances in last weekend's Seder for Darfur. The Sunday pre-Passover event was held both to raise awareness and to raise money for Jewish World Watch on behalf of victims.
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/a long way from home," the Gwen Wyatt Chorale somberly sang, its singers dispersed throughout the standing-room-only crowd of about 300 people.
"We need for America to speak out and really do something," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of the many high-powered guests in attendance. "Where to start, of course, is in the faith community."
Others on hand for the 90-minute program included actor Mare Winningham, Danny Glover, Ed Asner and Forest Whitaker, as well as Jewish community notables, such as Valley Beth Shalom's Rabbi Harold Schulweis, UCLA Hillel director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and singer Debbie Friedman. The event had few speeches; instead, the message was conveyed by readings, music and the firsthand accounts of students from Jewish World Watch who have gone to the Darfur region.
One of them, Lauren Gasparo, told of meeting a man who had just run away from his village, leaving behind his pregnant wife and his four children, ages 3 to 12.
"The Janjaweed will rape and kill my family, and there is nothing I can do," the man said to her.
A slide show illustrated the crisis, using Ron Haviv's photos from his "Children of Darfur" exhibit. The slides depicted displaced people, burning refugee camps and emaciated and dead victims of the genocide, which has claimed more than 300,000 people and displaced millions since 2003. Observers say most of the atrocities have been committed by Janjaweed militias, acting with the tacit approval and support of Sudan's government.
"At every seder it's our tradition to call, 'Let all those who are hungry come and eat' ... in Darfur, their voices call out and remind us that in every generation we must see ourselves as if we left Egypt," Seidler-Feller said. "Why is this seder different from all other seders? What has changed this year? Why are we gathering? Why do we care? Egypt is not a place and slavery is not a condition of the past."
"Some nations are still ruled by present-day pharaohs," he said. "Are you a freedom fighter? Then you believe in the Exodus. Today we are all freedom fighters."
Seder participants were encouraged to use their own Passover seder to motivate their guests to help victims of oppression in Darfur. Inside orange "gift bags" were green postcards to mail to President Bush and contribution envelopes made out to Jewish World Watch, with the address line "Do Not Stand Idly By."
The L.A.-based Jewish World Watch was formed in 2003 to educate and activate the community to decry genocide, as well as to bring humanitarian relief to victims in the form of water wells, medical clinics and sanitation. The organization has raised some $300,000 since its inception.
The gift bag also contained instructions for making the Passover seder different by adding a fourth matzah to the traditional three: "The Matzah of Hope."
"We raise this fourth Matzah to remind ourselves that slavery and genocide still exist," states the accompanying reading, "that people are being bought and sold as property, that ethnic people are being persecuted and slaughtered, that the Divine image within them is yet being denied...."
"We have suffered much for daring to be different. But we do not own suffering," Asner read. "We live our lives in pursuit of justice.... We must not stand idly by...."
People were encouraged to attend an April 23 rally at the Federal Building in West Los Angeles. On April 30, Jewish World Watch is sponsoring a march on Washington and one in San Francisco, as well.
"It is easy to feel discouraged and say, what can I do?" director Robert Townsend said. "It is not helpless. By joining us today you are making a difference."
The musical interludes used both traditional seder music -- with saxophonist Dave Koz playing "Let My People Go" and Todd Herzog playing the Elijah song -- and nonseder music -- with Debbie Friedman singing, " I still believe in people/and I still believe in you..." and Winningham on guitar, singing, "Hard times come again no more."
Whitaker and Ahavat Shalom's Cantor Patti Linksy mixed the two forms, as she read the closing "Chad Gad Ya" from the haggadah and the actor-director interspersed readings.
"What has changed? I have changed," he read. "When will this circle of terror continue? When will this madness stop?"
"Our struggle must not stop," said the seder's executive producer, Janice Kaminer-Resnick. Just before the event, she announced, a donor had offered an $18,000 matching grant to the day's contributions.
Craig Taubman, the writer of the seder, and producer of "Let My People Sing," the nine-day Passover festival of which this was a part, ended the show on a jaunty note, playing with his band and Laurence Juber.
"Dayeinu," they sang. Enough!
As people streamed out the door, Kaminer-Resnick announced that she had just received another check for $18,000, bringing the day's pledges to $100,000.