April 29, 2009

Briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO and Executive Vice President

Irv and I believe it is particularly meaningful that JDC sponsors Passover seders around the world each year to ensure that our global Jewish family will remember the holiday and cherish the freedom that allows us to celebrate it. Below is a special Passover story that took place in Egypt a few weeks ago, written by JDC Country Director Ami Bergman.

The Jewish community in Egypt has enjoyed a glorious history for many centuries—one filled with a rich and varied social and economic culture. But political and economic changes have resulted in the community dwindling to a shadow of its former self. Today the community numbers 60 people, half living in Alexandria and half in Cairo. There are only three men in Alexandria and the rest are elderly women. Cairo has no Jewish men at all.

JDC provides financial support to the community’s neediest and assistance for health costs. We also continue to reinforce the connection between Egypt’s remaining Jewish community and our Jewish heritage. So that they may fully partake in the Passover holiday, for example, JDC provides them with traditional Kosher for Passover foods, including matzot, wine, matzo meal, and cookies.

For the past few years, the President of the Cairo community has requested that JDC send people to conduct the seder. Mrs. Carmen Weinstein, the current President, has often urged me to join the community for Pesach. And this was the year I chose to say yes.

This decision was not an easy one: Pesach is traditionally a family holiday and I am blessed and privileged to always spend it with my children, their spouses, my wife’s family, and my grandchildren. After much thought, my wife and I decided that this year we would leave our personal family in Israel and join our larger Jewish JDC family in Cairo, Egypt.

I reminded myself that the sons of our forefather Jacob had no idea what fate had in store for them when they traveled to Egypt. As my wife, our son Dror, and I embarked on our adventure, we, too, were uncertain as to what awaited us. But as it is written, we “went down to Egypt.”

The Tribes of Israel left Egypt and wandered through the desert for 40 years; we flew to Cairo in 40 minutes—one minute of flight for every year of wandering. The Almighty, in His master plan, knew that He had to keep us in the desert for two generations. The children of Israel needed this time to remove the shackles of slavery and to grow and develop as free men and women, free to determine their own destinies. And their destiny enabled me, with no small degree of irony, to leisurely travel back from Israel to Egypt to celebrate that very Exodus with the remaining Jews in Egypt.

The contrasts in the two cities were enormous and palpable. We left Jerusalem wearing jackets on a cool, spring evening and arrived to a hot, oppressive Cairo. We left Israel in the early hours of the morning when there were few cars on the road. In vivid contrast, Cairo was teeming at 4:00 am. The streets are packed at all hours of the day and night. Old cars and taxis that were long ago taken off the road in other countries here block every street and corner.

But the most striking contrast was the strange feeling we had at the seder when we read in the Haggadah: “Thank you for taking us out of Egypt.” It seemed irrational and surreal, for this year I sat in Egypt reciting this. Moreover, the Haggadah regales the punishments and plagues that God forced on Egypt and here I am sitting in Cairo, retelling the story surrounded by local Egyptians. Ah, I thought to myself, JDC presents us with such special challenges…interesting and exciting ones!

The United States Ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scopey, participated in the seder as an honored guest. Other guests included staff members of the United States Embassy in Egypt, Jews who are serving in other diplomatic corps, students attending Egyptian universities, and tourists. Of course everyone must inform the community of their participation ahead of time in order to conform to strict security measures.

The seder was scheduled to begin at 7:00 pm in the courtyard of Cairo’s Sha’ar Shamayim Synagogue. The food was cooked and the tables were set. The matzot and wine, charoset, gefilte fish, and other foods that JDC had sent were ready to be enjoyed. And the community had prepared local delicacies.

The guests began to arrive. Eighty place settings were arranged, but people kept coming…. More tables and chairs were added to accommodate the 100 participants.

I was very excited to begin: This was the first time that I had the responsibility and the privilege of conducting a seder for a group—and in the Sephardic tradition, no less, when I only knew the Ashkenazi niggun (tune). We conducted the seder in Hebrew, with a bit of Arabic and a little English. I reflected that there are moments in life when you remember those who preceded you, nurtured you, and guided you…and I thought of my father z”l. I silently thanked him for teaching me to follow the Jewish tradition. And with warm memories of him, I began to lead the seder.

I began by explaining how remarkable it was that in Cairo—the capital of Egypt—we are recalling the exodus of our people out of this very land 4,000 years ago to the land of Israel. I gave a brief explanation, reminding everyone that we are commanded to retell the story every year, and I encouraged open participation during the seder.

I heard my own voice with some disbelief, but I continued. I invited the guests to take part in reading from the Hagaddah—some in Hebrew, some in French, and many in English. When paragraphs were read in Hebrew, I translated into English so that everyone would appreciate the text.

The hall overflowed with people, whose faces and smiles reflected the concentration they expended to hear every word. I felt deeply proud and very grateful.

For close to a century, JDC has strengthened the common bonds of our “Jewish Family” on so many levels and in many countries around the globe. I am privileged to contribute to the process and receive pleasure ten-fold in JDC’s noble effort. And I will never forget the seder that I led in the land of Egypt.

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