THE BLOG
04/18/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

A Passover Seder in Rwanda

Where on the African continent can you find a Seder this week? Try Rwanda. As in years past, we're looking at a standing room only list for ours (and we're not the only ones!). Nearly a decade ago, my wife and I moved to Rwanda to start a family and get behind Rwanda's optimistic vision. Our first couple of seders were quaint affairs, but we saw early on that our Rwandan friends found exceptional meaning in the memorialization of the liberation of the Jewish slaves in Egypt and the commencement of their journey to a homeland.

Our friends see an extraordinary parallel to their nation's success and plight. Decades ago -- in 1959 -- the Tutsi people were rooted out from jobs, from schools, and condemned to daily life that included their treatment as second class citizens. Cartoons ran in the newspaper likening them to cockroaches; it was the beginning of the rise of their dehumanization. The Hutu leadership began systematic massacres of Tutsi which spanned decades. Pogrom-like in their frequency and approach, these killings, combined with the second-class status given to the Tutsi, caused hundreds of thousands to flee Rwanda and live in exile. While in exile, these generations of Rwandans preserved their language, Kinyarwanda, their traditions, and the hope of returning home. In 1990, when military forces moved from Uganda to reclaim the country for its citizens and for the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps, liberation began.

But as had happened for the Jews, the suffering and deprivations mounted. When finally the two sides were on the brink of signing a power sharing agreement, the evil forces of the Rwandan government lashed out mightily and began the genocide. The rebel army put an end to the genocide but not before nearly a million had been slaughtered. It then did something unique: it started rebuilding the country that their forebears had dreamed of.

Rwanda is landlocked and the most densely populated nation in Africa. Yet, it has experienced in excess of a 7 percent economic growth rate for more than a decade running. While that growth translates into lots more access to foreign goods (and more access for foreign markets to Rwandan tea, coffee and tourism), it hasn't helped the matzo supply in Kigali.

We've learned to make do and have mastered the art of home-baked matzo, printed up internet-available Hagadot, and gotten over our longing for sweet kosher wine on the table (there's a seat for you if you can fly in with a bottle). Unlike Ethiopia, and many other countries in Africa, there is no synagogue here and the community is fragmented. But the spirit of Passover is particularly strong.

With the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide at hand, the country is uniquely poised to celebrate something that few policy wonks expected: success. Kigali has sidewalks and streetlights. Wifi is free on public buses. Health has improved tremendously. Government has even successfully floated bonds on the international markets.

The Passover story resonates strongly with our Rwandan friends -- even those who know almost nothing about modern Judaism -- not only because they have known unspeakable oppression, but also because so many in their country remain enslaved by another oppressor: poverty. While a remarkable one million Rwandans have pulled themselves out of poverty in the last several years, there are millions to go. Unlike many countries that might look to the hand of foreign aid alone for poverty elimination, Rwanda is bent on leading the job on its own.

That's the ambition that caused my wife and me to move here and set up a business to create jobs for poverty reduction. As we sit around our Passover tables with friends and families and make our Hillel sandwiches of matzo, bitter herbs and sweet charoset, we're reminded of the scholar's words more than two millennia ago: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"

Jews have been telling this story of freedom for thousands of years. Now it's time for that story to be joined by other stories of liberation. It's time to reflect on the urgent and perennial need for emancipation of needy people around the world, to free them from the constraints of poverty. At our social enterprise restaurant -- aptly named Heaven -- our staff often comments on the poverty they experienced before getting jobs and training. They note that poverty for them was a lack of freedom. The poor are not free from hunger, not free to travel, not free to control their lives or even their bodies.

Around the world, poor people are enslaved, just as the Jews were in Egypt. This year is yet another time to remind ourselves that we must work and invest in the poor of all nations to help them grow, prosper, and find the peace and freedom they desire. At the close of our Seder every year, our Rwandan friends remark that they wish they had a Hagaddah of their own, one that tells of their people's redemption from lives of tyranny and bondage, to prosperity and freedom. Indeed, theirs is a story worth documenting and retelling, until the plague of poverty is as deeply buried in history as the Jews' enslavement in Egypt.