Jews, Asian Americans find common ground at seder

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Addressing a group of Christian Chinese Americans attending their first seder, Rabbi Alan Lew pronounced, "By the end of the evening we'll ask if you're one of our lost tribes or if we're one of yours."

At Monday's seder in the social hall at San Francisco Congregation Beth Sholom, Jewish hosts and Chinese American guests found they had much in common, including the value both groups place upon family, community and education.

But most important, both local communities trace their roots back to immigration.

As a result of this commonality, both the Jewish and Chinese American participants have ties that transcend the seder experience; politicians and activists in both groups have been working together since January to defeat or modify anti-immigration legislation.

"The Chinese community and the Jewish community became pretty good friends," said the Rev. Norman Fong of the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.

Chinese and Jewish groups first began pooling their resources to fight anti-immigration measures in Congress, he said.

"We would meet almost every week, trying to save immigration."

The Jewish and Chinese groups, which had already been working independently, formed the Celebrate Immigrants Committee in January. Since then, they have targeted a number of immigration measures and tried to persuade Sen. Dianne Feinstein to soften her stance on immigration.

Over time, however, both groups became interested in learning about one other. So Felice Sheramy, associate director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, invited Chinese activists to a seder.

"This is pretty exciting for us," Fong said.

Guests included such dignitaries as Israeli Consul Reda Mansour and U.S. Civil Rights Commission member Yvonne Lee.

Lew told the gathering it was easy to draw comparisons between the Pesach story and the shoals of modern immigration.

"This is, above all else, an immigration story," he said. "It's a double immigration story. It's a story of a people who migrate to one country and are oppressed there, then make a second migration.

"When you listen to it with your ears attuned to this particular message, you'll see it's on every page. It's in practically every word."

Rabbinic scholars believe the Exodus story repeats itself every year in some part of the world, Lew added. So because Jews were slaves in Egypt, they have to be kind to strangers — to keep the door open for immigrants as well as for Elijah.

That was the message Fong also drew from the service. "We are remembering our roots, and we are a nation of immigrants," he said.

It meshed easily with the political work that brought the groups together, he added. "That's our message to the Senator [Feinstein] and others: Remember our roots, as immigrants," he said.

Lee also found inspiration in her first seder experience. "After a horrible week in Washington [during which an air crash took the lives of Commerce secretary Ron Brown and other business leaders], this helps bring perspective," she said.

Fong added, "There are so many analogies and beautiful symbols here, and the wine helps, too."

Currently battling to modify Senate Bill 1394, which restricts legal immigration, the Celebrate Immigrants Committee will probably find another opportunity to share a celebration, Fong told Lew at the end of the ceremony.

"Chinese New Year, it's our turn," Fong said.