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Congregation Sha'arey Israel

A Conservative Jewish Congregation serving the spiritual needs of the Middle Georgia Jewish community since 1904

611 First Street, Macon, GA 31201
Phone: (478) 745-4571

What Does Passover Come To Teach?

As I type these words it‟s Thursday, the last day of Hol HaMoed, the festival’s ‘in-between’ days. Yesterday I taught my kids at Hebrew School; we learned a song (Adir Hu) found near the end of the Haggadah. I gently reminded students that it’s still Passover, with its regulations regarding leaven — and as I reflect on the Hebrew School conversation I realize just how far away the Passover story and the dietary details can feel out here in
Macon, Georgia. It’s as if one of the children described in the Haggadah is insistently asking: What is this, what does it mean, ? מה זאת Great question; and perhaps whatever I told my students didn’t quite rise to the occasion.

How can we really see ourselves as someone escaping the dark tyrannies of Egypt?

And because I don’t really believe in mere coincidence, when I clicked open the article below, from Tablet (an excellent thought-provoking Jewish periodical), I knew that I had in my hands a powerful and stirring response to my students’ questions. Maybe the vocabulary and length would tax the patience of the kids — but this piece is for the grownups. I urge you: let the words below soak in and Passover’s truth will slap you wide awake;
something we all need. Seriously.

By Annika Hernroth Rothstein
April 25, 2019 • 12:00 AM

These are the days of affliction.

These are the days, not unlike those our ancestors lived through in Egypt, where brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers are hungry and unfree. It is 11 p.m. Thursday night, the day before Passover begins, and I am sitting on the floor of Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2F, my few remaining possessions scattered all around me. I was supposed to be in Venezuela right now, a country I had been visiting as a journalist for the last few months after a conflict over political legitimacy had left the country in chaos. I was supposed to be leaning ever so slightly at a Seder table in Caracas and celebrating this festival of freedom, but instead I found myself in captivity.

I had prepared everything for weeks. After spending over two months in Venezuela, I had found a second family within what remains of the Jewish community in what is considered one of the most dangerous and chaotic countries in the world; a country in the midst of a political and humanitarian crisis, struggling for its freedom. When I touched down at the airport in Maiquetia, entering the land of the Pharaoh, the poetry of the moment wasn’t lost on me.
The Jewish community in Venezuela has diminished from around 30,000 individuals to 6,000 since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, but the ones who remain have bonded together and managed to overcome many of the issues that plague the rest of the Jewish world. There are no clear divisions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi and, as I could clearly tell as soon as I walked into the Hebraica community center in downtown Caracas, they all share a safe space in an otherwise perilous city. Hebraica is where the Jewish children of Caracas go to school, from kindergarten to 12th grade and where they spend their free time under the watchful eye of a privately contracted security force that provides a level of public safety that the often-corrupt Venezuelan police never could. There is a sense of life in a gilded cage here but it is also so much more than that; those who have remained carry the torch for all the others who one day hope to return.

Por eso eres deportado.

This time, I could sense that something was different the moment I stepped off the plane. The official at the front of the immigration
line looked at me as if he knew me, then looked at his phone and
hurried off to his colleagues farther down the hall. I told myself it
would be fine, that I am being paranoid for no reason, but just as that thought begins to settle in my mind, a GNB soldier, a member of the Venezuelan National Guard, approached me.

“You need to come with me.”

He is holding a piece of paper and I can‟t see what it says but I can see the familiar abbreviation—to: DGCIM—the center of Venezuela’s military intelligence.

More soldiers show up and I have no choice but to follow them,
from the open hall to the enclosed space marked “special security.” I keep asking, over and over, what is happening and why but no one is speaking to me as I am escorted down the stairs and into the departure hall. Three soldiers stand around me while the fourth says something in rapid Spanish, his words blur but I catch the last part as if it was said in slow motion.

“Estás siendo deportado.”

Everything happens so fast. The soldiers escort me on the plane,
place me in my seat and walk off—all to the curious stares of my
fellow passengers. I’m crying, despite every effort not to, and just as the hostess starts to make her rounds I post a series of desperate tweets, telling the world that I have been deported.

I first arrived in Venezuela 10 weeks ago, and I never could have
guessed that it would end up becoming my second home. There was something there in this people’s struggle for freedom that spoke to me as a Jew; perhaps it was their commitment to their people and land despite it punishing them at every turn; or perhaps it’s the hope they all share, defying logic and circumstance. Six days of reporting turned into two weeks and by the time I touched down Thursday, I was entering my third month with no clear end in sight.

The Maduro regime systematically represses free speech and punishes dissent; working within that system means adapting to constant surveillance and bursts of violence from one or many arms of the government. close call, and even though I’m not given a reason have little doubt that my deportation is a direct result of the high-profile work I have done over the past two months, reporting on everything from paramilitary groups and mass starvation to the systematic arrests of political dissidents.

My own problems are nothing compared to what Venezuelans go
through every day far from the public eye, and the minorities in the country enjoy even less protection. The Jews who speak out are twice as vulnerable as others, and faced with ever-present rumors of of dual loyalties and Mossad connections. Most, therefore, usually don’t speak out but rather keep themselves to themselves and try to stay under the regime radar.

I spent the entirety of the nine-hour flight from Caracas to Paris staring blankly into space, trying to make sense of what had happened. The previous morning I had packed my Haggadah, anxiously excited to meet another branch of our family, and now for the first time since as long as I could remember I was about to spend Passover alone.

Once I turn on my phone, it starts beeping with alerts from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. There are messages from exiled Venezuelans around the world: from Madrid, Norway, New York, and Palermo, and each one is inviting me to a Seder in their home. There are over 100 messages and I read through them all, though they are nearly identical, and tears stream down my face as I do. It is the story of an exiled nation, and as I sit on the floor of Terminal 2F I have never felt closer to my people.

I don’t have wine or matzo, but I do have my Haggadah, one of few things not taken from me. It’s not much, but it’s still everything, and I go through the text by myself in company of the exiled on the other side of that phone.