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Ruth Messinger

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An Empty Place at My Seder Table

Posted: 04/14/2011 5:38 pm

Last spring, my organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), asked its supporters to set an empty place at their Shabbat tables. This was a gesture to show solidarity with the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night.

As I prepare for Passover, this year, I've decided to incorporate the empty place at my table as a new Seder ritual. This empty place will stand for all those around the world who still lack the basic freedoms that our Seders celebrate. I want my guests to understand that none of us will be truly free until marginalized people everywhere can realize their human rights -- access to food and water, gender equality and freedom from violence, government accountability and transparency, access to education and health care, and the list goes on. So, before we begin to sip our first cup of wine, I and my guests will be reciting the lines below.

As we enjoy bountiful food and drink this night and remember our starvation in Egypt ... We commit to support those who struggle today with the horrors of hunger.

Among those I'll be symbolically inviting to join my Seder are the hungry. The Hagaddah itself invokes, "All who are hungry, let them come and eat." This is more important today than ever, as more than a billion people globally are now living on less than a dollar a day. It is common for people in the Global South to spend 75 percent of their income on food, yet food prices have skyrocketed recently. And in Washington, politics have trumped compassion. Our government is putting the final touches on a federal budget that cuts by 11 percent food aid that is designed to help those who are starving.

By setting an empty place in solidarity with the hungry, I commit myself to promoting food justice by protesting cuts to humanitarian aid, and by supporting communities' work to grow food.

As we recline in comfort on this night and remember our suffering in Egypt ... We commit to support those who suffer today in the darkness of disasters.

My solidarity plate will also be set for the victims of extreme natural disasters, especially the people of Haiti. It has been more than a year since an earthquake ravaged their island nation, yet people are still living in makeshift tent villages that are sometimes constructed in highway median strips. Many women cannot go the latrine at night without the fear of being assaulted. The tiny villages in the countryside that took in displaced persons by the hundreds remain overwhelmed by the task of feeding them, housing them and providing the basic services they need. The Haitian government remains crippled, and civil society organizations have lacked the resources, organization and power to care for the millions of Haitians in need.

All the while our own government has fallen short in setting guidelines that would ensure that its aid is encouraging sustainable development, such as a requirement that goods purchased for Haiti's reconstruction must be produced in Haiti. And the international community has virtually ignored the critical voices of Haiti's grassroots leadership, which should be central to the effort.

By setting a place at my Seder for the people of Haiti, and all those who have experienced human-made and natural disasters, I commit myself to investing in grassroots disaster response, to advocating for effective aid by my own government, and to giving my support to alleviating people's suffering.

As we joyfully learn with our children this night and remember the decree against our baby boys in Egypt ... We commit to support boys and girls who are denied a childhood today and deserve the opportunities of education.

The empty place at my Seder will also stand for the children of the world who lack education. In more than a decade leading AJWS, I have borne witness, time and time again, to the heartbreaking lack of opportunity for children to go to school. I have met six-year-old boys in Ghana who are forced to leave school in order to work from dawn to dusk on dangerous fishing boats, leaning over the sides to haul in large nets. I have stood on a train platform in India simply mesmerized by the eager look in a child's eyes as he sat in a makeshift group math lesson between shifts of cleaning human waste. I have met teenage girls in Kenya who have dropped out of school for no other reason than the lack of a bathroom for them to use while they are menstruating. All of these children have gifts that their communities and our society will never realize if they can't go to school.

The empty plate at my Seder table will inspire us to act on their behalf, to become invested agents of change and advocates for universal education.

As we celebrate our unprecedented freedom this night and remember our chains of slavery in Egypt ... Today, we commit to stand in solidarity with all those across the developing world seeking to unshackle themselves from poverty, disease and discrimination and striving for an empowered future.

I hope that others will join me in adding this new, symbolic ritual to the Passover table. Along with the familiar symbols for slavery, labor, freedom and revelation, let us add this one for solidarity. By inviting those who are still experiencing injustice to join us at our Seder and raising awareness of their plight, we take one more step toward realizing true freedom for all of the world's people.

 

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