First Person | Local

Tucsonan celebrates festival of freedom in Nepal

At an impromptu Passover seder in Nepal, ginger chutney took the place of horseradish and traditional flat chappati bread was a substitute for matzah.
Elephants released from chains on Passover in Chitin National Park, Nepal
Elephants released from chains on Passover in Chitin National Park, Nepal

In April, I spent three weeks in Nepal as a volunteer for Elephant Aid International. Life for captive Asian elephants is a miserable existence of slavery, including painful iron chains around their legs. In cooperation with the government of Nepal, EAI and volunteers from all over the world built solar powered chain-free corrals for the elephants of Chitwan National Park. These elephants serve as part of the park’s anti-poaching patrol. They spend their days transporting park staff and/or army personnel throughout the massive jungle to ward off rhino poachers. The corrals make it possible for the elephants to be permanently released from their leg chains when they are not working. I am very proud to have been selected to participate in the “Chain Free Means Pain Free” project.

Allison Wexler in Nepal
Allison Wexler in Nepal

As I prepared to spend several weeks in a developing country, I packed essentials like malaria pills, toilet paper, a flashlight, plant-based bug spray and four Promise Haggadahs.

Yes. I packed Haggadahs. I was going to be in Nepal with strangers for Passover. I knew absolutely nobody on my team and had no idea if there would be time to observe this holiday in any way. But I packed them.

It turns out that none of the 12 people on my team were Jewish. In fact, none of them, not even the vegan chef from Palm Springs, had ever even been to a seder.

I described the holiday to my new friends as a celebration of freedom from slavery. Everyone agreed that because of the work we were doing to free the elephants from chains, celebrating Passover together would be appropriate. I also promised them four cups of wine, which didn’t hurt.

Coincidentally, on the day of the seder, we had expected to complete enough of the corral to witness our first big release. There were seven elephants waiting. Three sets of moms and babies, and one young male. We were all very excited.

But so it goes in Nepal, there was a complication. As the elephants were returning for the evening, the sky opened up and a powerful thunderstorm came out of nowhere. We worked in the rain, but this rain was too much for us. We ran for cover under a small metal structure (super safe) to wait it out. We stood there watching the rain, trying unsuccessfully to stay dry, looking at the elephants just yards away; chained. That’s when we heard the sound of raindrops on the tin roof transform into something louder. Hail. It was hailing.

The plagues had come to Chitwan. Mother Nature was ordering us to “Let her people go!” Hail wasn’t the only plague my team had experienced in Nepal. Disease, lice, blood and even boils had all made an appearance in some way. It blew my mind.

The storm passed, and a vibrant full rainbow appeared over the river. We turned away from the elephants to admire the rainbow when we heard the musical sound of chains clinking, and then hitting the ground. The chains were coming off! We listened to one “clink clink thud” after the next, until we were observing seven elephants experiencing their first moments of a life unchained. It was glorious.

After a while, they walked off into the jungle. The corrals we built extend for acres so the elephants have room to roam. It’s not the real wild, but compared to a lifetime in chains, it’s perfect. The image of elephants walking away is permanently etched in my heart and mind.

I hopped on my bike with renewed energy and stopped at a small market on my way back to Tree Tops (our volunteer housing). I picked up apples and all the sweet wine (the only wine) on the shelf.

The men who worked at Tree Tops helped me find everything else I needed. I could not find parsley, so we used shredded cabbage. Instead of horseradish, Chef Tanya, my teammate, whipped up a ginger chutney. We clearly had no access to matzah, but the Nepali flatbread known as chapatti would do just fine. Since everyone joining us was either vegetarian or vegan (my people!), we skipped the shank bone entirely.

Everything was set for the seder. After a long day of hard work, followed by the big elephant release, I had prepared and was about to lead an international seder. We had 15 people joining us that night from Nepal, Canada, Australia, Germany, England and the United States. With no electricity, we read our haggadahs by candle light. Although many of the guests did not speak English or Hebrew, we understood each other completely.

We celebrated freedom on so many levels. We took special time to hide and search for the afikoman to remind us that “What seems lost may be recovered, and what seems broken may be repaired.”

We welcomed the prophet Elijah and opened wide the door of hope, freedom and peace.

We took time to remember those not yet free.

The evening didn’t end with the seder. We danced. We sang “Hava Nagila” and we danced the hora with unimaginable joy. We sang songs from all of our nations and danced for hours in what will remain one of the most powerful experiences of all of our lives. We are forever bonded by our work and by this incredible night.

By request, I gifted the four Promise Haggadahs I had with me to my new friends, and promised to mail copies to the others. My suitcase going home was lighter for it, but my heart was fuller.


Allison Wexler lives in Tucson with her husband and three daughters. She volunteers with numerous Jewish and animal rescue organizations.