I never thought I’d be hosting a Passover Seder for one of the survivors of the Rwanda genocide, a tragedy in which almost a million people perished in 1994.
The survivor, a sweet-looking woman named Edith Umugiraneza, quietly recounted the story of how she survived while her family was massacred. She’s been telling her story lately through the USC Shoah Foundation, which has made a major effort in recent years to draw attention to human atrocities, in addition to the Holocaust.
There were other native Africans at our table, including Pastor Kasereka Kasomo, a French-speaking Christian minister who spoke about his journey from the streets of Congo to running a large African church in downtown Los Angeles.
How does a member of the Pico-Robertson Orthodox Jewish community end up hosting a seder with Christians and Africans he’s never met before?
It’s called loving your daughter.
My oldest daughter, Tova, who is majoring in fine arts at UCLA, has been volunteering on campus with a humanitarian group called Innovation Africa, which uses Israeli cutting-edge technology to bring clean water, electricity and other aid to African villages.
So we thought: Why not host a Jewish-African seder?
It felt like a natural. We would gather Jews and Africans who share a common history of persecution, engage with the Passover themes of slavery and liberation, and show a Jewish group’s efforts to be “our brothers’ keepers” in Africa.
To help us organize and run the seder, we wanted a partner with a similar mission. Enter my friends Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Michael Jeser of Jewish World Watch, an organization that combats genocide in Africa. They jumped at the idea and invited Edith, the pastor, and other native Africans to come to the seder.
Because a major theme of the evening was liberation, we thought it’d be great if a woman rabbi could help run the seder, to honor the long (and ongoing) journey of spiritual and social liberation for Jewish women.
So, on the seder day itself, I called my friend Rabbi Zoe Klein from Temple Isaiah, who also loved the idea. She rearranged her schedule and showed up that night with her kids, and brought copies of a “Freedom Haggadah” she had put together.
Our event wasn’t an official seder — it’s what they call a “mock seder.” We held it on the Thursday night before the regular seders.
But mock seder or not, the evening was infused with emotions as real as the tingle you feel when you just fall in love.
Rabbi Klein set the tone with a beautiful riff on how a seder table marries the opposite ideas of royalty and slavery.
We then began the rituals, starting with the Moroccan custom of rotating the seder plate over everyone’s heads and chanting a special blessing. As the evening went on, Klein continued sharing her insights as we led a discussion around key sections of the Haggadah, with a focus on social justice and the work of Jewish World Watch and Innovation Africa.
The deepest emotions of the night came from the stories. My daughter told a story of an African girl whose life was liberated when Innovation Africa brought electricity to her village. This enabled her, among other things, to read numerous books at night-- which changed her life.
The tragic story of Edith held our hearts.
Just try to imagine a 15-year-old girl whose family is being massacred in her own village. Maybe because there were kids at the table, Edith spoke haltingly, holding back on the details.
Her story came out a little foggy. She remembers family members running everywhere. There was the cry of a mother. There was the sight of murderers. There was chaos.
As Edith recounted her memories of darkness, sitting at a glorious seder table with human warmth surrounding her, I recalled what Rabbi Klein had said earlier about the marriage of slavery and royalty. Here it was: Echoes of depravity in a space of dignity, darkness and light, despair and hope, all in one place.
When I spoke to Edith later, she explained to me what she had trouble saying before. It was even darker than I thought. Seeing the massacre unfolding in front of her, she was hoping to die. She wanted to “go” with her family. She didn’t want to be left behind, even to live. That’s why she was running — toward the murderers.
For some reason, though, the murderers didn’t oblige. Call it divine intervention, call it luck, call it what you will. Edith Umugiraneza survived. And now, many years later, at her first-ever seder in a Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles, she was telling her story of survival.
In a way, the evening was a tribute to America — to the freedom to tell our stories without fear; to the opportunity to start organizations like Jewish World Watch and Innovation Africa that fight the kind of persecution Jews have endured throughout their history.
But when my sister asked Edith about her experience in America, she didn’t mention freedom and opportunity.
Instead, she answered: “I didn’t expect to find homeless people here.”
A victim of genocide comes to America, and the thing she notices is homeless people. That little statement may have held the most meaningful message of the night: Human suffering has no address. It happens everywhere, all the time, even when we cannot see it.
It seems that those who have lived through atrocities, whether in African villages or in Jewish ghettos, have a special eye for this human suffering.
Many of them also have a need, a compulsion, a determination to tell their stories to anyone who would listen-- including people they just met around a Passover seder table.