Freedom Seder affirms Tucson’s diversity

Actor Ed Asner, center, led a Freedom Seder on April 21 cosponsored by Temple Emanu-El and Humane Borders. He is pictured with  Dinah Bear, president of the board of Humane Borders, and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El. (Simon Rosenblatt)
Actor Ed Asner, center, led a Freedom Seder on April 21 cosponsored by Temple Emanu-El and Humane Borders. He is pictured with Dinah Bear, president of the board of Humane Borders, and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Singing the traditional Passover song Chad Gadya, leaving a cup of wine for the prophet Elijah, reciting poems by Marge Piercy and other secular poets, listening to reflections by members of Tucson’s Latino community — all marked the Freedom Seder held April 21 at Temple Emanu-El, cosponsored by Humane Borders. Ed Asner, seven-time Emmy Award winner and special guest, added drama by reading the customized Haggadah in his booming voice.

“Passover has become a liberation movement,” said Asner, who is Jewish, to around 200 participants. “Passover teaches us each year how we once were slaves and now we’re free. The Seder connects us to all people who aren’t free.” Temple Emanu-El stands 63 miles from the border where in 2012, 157 human beings “died of thirst, hunger and exposure trying to cross the border,” he continued. “We ask that you not stand idly by. As long as anyone is afflicted we are not whole. America, too, is a nation of immigrants. We may have come on different ships but we’re all in the same boat now.”

As Seder participants dipped parsley into small bowls of salt water “to remember the tears of our ancestors,” said Asner, “we also think of migrants crossing the border today.” Other variants on a more typical Seder included asking the Four Questions in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish and Hungarian. Participants dipped a finger into one of the four glasses of wine consumed at the Seder, placing a drop of wine on their plates as each of the ten plagues of Egypt were named. Then the practice was repeated with a set of 10 contemporary plagues: poverty, hatred, racism, ignorance, illiteracy, human trafficking, addiction, homelessness, greed and violence.

Mixed with the seriousness of any Seder, there’s humor. Temple’s Senior Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon introduced the singing of “Dayenu” as “Number one on the Jewish hit parade for Passover.” He also offered a haiku:

Opening the door

For Elijah the prophet

Now our cat is gone

A somber universal theme was sounded in Haggadah readings from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Ernesto Portillo, Jr. read from one of his columns in the Arizona Daily Star seven years ago, affirming “a connection to the diversity of life in Tucson.” Local immigration attorney Maurice Goldman told about working with a U.S. immigration and customs enforcement officer that day to help a new father from being deported back to Mexico.

Felipe Lundi, president emeritus of Humane Borders, noted that the organization, which leaves water for migrants in the desert, is comprised of volunteers. Going out into the desert, “we put stickers on water drums that say, ‘Don’t cross the desert. The desert will kill you,’” said Juanita Molina, executive director of Humane Borders.

“If anybody thinks someone wants to cross the desert in 110 degrees that’s very wrong thinking,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, adding, “Our freedom stems from literacy. We appreciate our freedom of speech. Literacy is one of the keys to freedom across the world.”

Freedom to survive was on the minds of other speakers. “I’m remembering how much I owe the ’60s,” said the Rev. John E. Kitagawa of St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church. When migrants set out across the Sonoran Desert, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” he said, quoting from “Me and Bobby McGee.” “We have to remember those times we haven’t been free ourselves, from economic depression, the prison of addiction” and other woes. “We need to remember what that feels like and if we do, it will motivate us to act.”

Members of the Jewish community have acted. “Tucson is one of the places where you can still make a difference,” said Bob Feinman, vice president and one of two Jewish members of the Humane Borders board. “One challenge is the misconception that those of us who are concerned don’t work together. Both we and border control believe in the value of human life. We have no political agenda. Whether you’re right or left, we’re all one,” he continued. “The fact is that people cross the border illegally and they die. What we’re trying to do is stop people from dying of thirst. We work with the border patrol to prevent people from dying. We go to places in Mexico where migrants gather and plead with them not to cross the border. We tell them how dangerous it is” to cross the desert.

“I know B’nai Mitzvah kids who have gone with their dads to fill water tanks,” said Cohon. “We are of an immigrant people. We must remember this and we must act.”

Feinman reinforced the rabbi’s view. “We needed to get involved to save others,” he affirmed, “like our lives were saved.”

For more information on Humane Borders, contact Feinman at 940-0078 or narpansoy@gmail.com.