From the Depths of Jewish History, Passover’s Message for Today
By Mark Sisisky
For Jews and Jewish communities around the world, the month-long countdown to Passover has begun.
We’ll be busying ourselves with planning, shopping for matzah and other Passover food, celebrating model Seders, and getting ready for the “main event.”
This time for family and friends, community and reflection, often centers around recalling our journey as a people from slavery to freedom. In my family, we observe Passover like most other families in America, celebrating our freedom as a people, recounting our history, and acknowledging our blessing of freedom from economic turmoil. At the same time, we discuss the uncertainty that the future holds and how as a people we must stand together as one. This year, we’re having 23 people at our Seder – how fortunate we are given that some people, even in our own communities, pray to just be invited to a Seder to experience the joys of family and a sense of belonging.
This year, of course, in a world fraught by serious concerns, we find ourselves distracted and divided on so many fronts.
How can we recommit to Passover’s story of liberation from the bonds of oppression – or the Seder’s key messages to “let all who are hungry come eat” and “all who are yearning come celebrate” – when we are overtaken by so many challenges, from the political to the financial, from domestic to international concerns, as a community and a people?
Sometimes, fate plays a hand.
I was privileged recently to see a rarely, if ever seen, film on efforts in 1947 to provide Passover goods to Jews in postwar Vienna. The stark images of Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees getting matzahs, wine, and preparing for Passover at a time when the deep wounds of WWII were fresh and still open, was not lost on me.
Indeed, that we, as a Jewish community, had a role in ensuring that our Jewish brothers and sisters in Europe could celebrate Passover at a time when its meaning was remarkably relevant, when their ability to identify and celebrate their Jewish faith and culture was paramount for rebuilding their lives, was nothing short of miraculous.
In truth, in the 70 years since these events, we as a Jewish people have endured many challenges and, at the same time, had the unique opportunity to celebrate a restoration of ourselves as a people: with founding of the State of Israel, the release of Soviet Jews from their bondage, the renaissance of Jewish life in Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Aliyah of Ethiopian, Yemini, and other vulnerable Jews to Israel, and so many other historic events.
The common thread in all of this? That we, a people who feel deeply the tremors of history, scarred by repression and genocide, came together, and come together, to strengthen and empower our fellow Jews when they are most in need.
And our work is not done.
There are many demands on the Jewish people today. We have concerns for the future of our communities; the age-old specter of anti-Semitism; Israel’s continued strength and ability to endure; ensuing the rising generation is committed and connected to Jewish life and identity; and how we care for our neediest when resources are scarce. And, above all, how we fulfill our obligation to save Jewish lives, when needed, and to build Jewish life, despite the odds.
And yet I do not feel daunted – in fact, I am inspired.
I am bullish on our ability to address these problems with innovative solutions because that is what we have always done as a community. Our collective efforts to ensure our people’s resilience and our common destiny have been hallmarks of Jewish civilization.
And this year I found renewed inspiration for that mission in a silent, black and white film that recalls the promise of Jewish life, of Passover’s promise for redemption, in the earliest of years following an enormous catastrophe for our people, and indeed, for the world.
I want to share this with as many people as possible, so that the infectious passion I have for repairing a broken world, of building the future for our people, can be a call to action.
This service is part of my DNA, as a leader in the Jewish Federation of Richmond, the Community Foundation of Central Virginia, and as a Board Member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the global Jewish humanitarian group, from whose archives this film is drawn.
It has inspired me, my fellow Jewish leaders, and our friends and families to educate ourselves, and our wider networks, about Jewish needs and to ensure they are met.
As you prepare your Passover table, leaving a place for the prophet Elijah among your guests, join me in a new tradition to leave a place for a Jew whose life will be impacted by your efforts, by our collective efforts to fulfill the Talmudic precept, at the heart of the Passover story, that we all embrace: all Jews are responsible for one another.
Mark Sisisky, a Richmond native and business leader, has a long history of philanthropic involvement in his local community and around the world.