Seder links experiences of Israelites to modern emigres

"My family has always lived out of suitcases," Sydney Levy said.

His grandparents hailed from Turkey and Greece. His parents came from Egypt. He was born in Venezuela.

So when the Bay Area chapter of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights assembled a Passover seder linking the themes of oppression and liberation for the ancient Hebrews with the present situation for immigrants in America, Levy didn't hesitate to join the table.

"I come from a family of immigrants. Each generation is from a different continent. I know the immigrant experience," said Levy, 33, an asylum project coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday of last week, Levy and nearly 50 others gathered for a seder at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. No meal was served, yet the guests did not leave until almost 10 p.m.

"We wanted to be in solidarity with the immigrants losing their food stamps and benefits," explained Elizabeth Friedman, ICIR co-chair.

The story of Jewish enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt was told. Parsley was dipped in salt water. Hillel sandwiches of matzah, charoset and horseradish were eaten. Four cups of wine were drunk.

When the 10 plagues were recited, participants — representatives from Catholic Charities, La Raza Central Legal, Hispanic Pastoral Center in the East Bay, Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue and the National Conference of Christians and Jews — added their own modern-day afflictions to the list.

They spoke of racism, environmental pollution, politicians, homophobia and apathy.

"They were the kinds of things you would expect to hear. But when people named them, they also talked about how they were affected by them. It was a heavy dose," said Rabbi Allen Bennett, who led the seder; he is chairman of the Bay Area chapter of ICIR and spiritual leader at Temple Israel in Alameda.

In addition, participants told their own stories of political and religious persecution and of immigrants' experiences in the promised land of America.

"These were truly the best moments," said Levy. "People talked about their experiences working with immigrants in the field — those paid low wages and not organized. For some, this is how they understand slavery today."

Although the ICIR has sponsored other religious events to highlight the immigrant experience — ICIR was formed in 1994 to challenge California Proposition 187, which denies basic health and education benefits to children of illegal immigrants — the seder was a first.

According to Bennett, the seder's aim was to act "as witness" to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States: specifically, cuts in welfare, Supplementary Security Income and food stamps.

This year in California, 200,000 immigrants will lose SSI and 425,000 will lose their food-stamp benefits as of August and September.

ICIR also focused on the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which went into effect April 1.

These laws make immigrants' plight even more challenging by placing income requirements on U.S. residents attempting to bring family members to the United States.

"You just can't ignore this," said Levy. "Under these new laws, immigrants are losing benefits and people are being sent back to their persecutor before you can say, `Passover.'"

The seder "was certainly motivating for people to roll up their sleeves and take action," he said. "Most of us there were doing this already. But this was a reminder to get other people involved."