Passover Seder held for Mexican students in exile

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Marleen Villanueva passes food to a fellow participant of the first annual Mexican-Jewish Seder, while her friend Amalia Hernandez dishes food onto her own plate. Texas Hillel, UT’s chapter of the international Jewish student organization, hosted the Seder dinner Thursday evening and over 140 guests attended.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Howeth | Daily Texan Staff

Mexican citizens exiled due to government and cartel violence in northern Mexico were welcomed in a celebration of culture and diversity at UT’s first Mexican-Jewish Seder dinner.

The Jewish Passover Seder, which marks the beginning of the eight-day Passover festival, is a celebratory dinner and retelling of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. The Mexican-Jewish Seder honored Mexican citizens who are currently in exile due to ongoing violence in northern Mexico. Texas Hillel, UT’s chapter of the international Jewish student organization, hosted the Seder on Thursday evening along with the Anti-Defamation League of Austin and the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies. More than 140 guests from various backgrounds and organizations attended the Seder, including members of the Latino and Jewish Student Coalition, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Latino/a Graduate Student Association.

Sharing stories of struggle and freedom was an important part of the Seder meal for members of both cultures, said Spanish and Portuguese senior and Texas Hillel participant Alejandra Spector.

“Passover is a celebration of the exile,” Spector said. “It’s one of the most important Jewish holidays, and we thought, ‘what better way to celebrate that than to bring actual exiles to a Passover Seder?’

The point that we’re trying to get across is that they’re here, they’re alive and able to tell their story, and they represent hope for a better Mexico.”

The event benefited Mexicanos en el Exilio, an organization founded by Spector’s father, Carlos Spector. It is a nonprofit organization aiming to act as a legal defense fund for activists and reporters facing violence in northern Mexico, Spector said.

He said she hopes the integrated Seder will open the eyes of those who do not understand the struggles of citizens exiled from Mexico.

“I want people to start talking about the war on drugs and the violence in Mexico in a different way,” Spector said. “There’s a tendency to view it as a very black and white issue, so this is really the beginning of an important dialogue. That’s why it’s good that it’s happening over a Seder meal, because that’s when people really open up — when they’re surrounded by family and friends.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Yellin, who took part in facilitating the Seder meal, said the Seder is intended specifically as a celebration for those who have overcome oppression.

“The Passover Seder basically is for people who have had a past of persecution, and now they have subjected themselves to a new culture and a new civilization of freedom and they have remade their lives,” Yellin said. “All people who celebrate a Seder have lived through struggle.”

Integration of other cultures and histories into a Seder is not uncommon in Jewish tradition, said Devora Brustin, senior Jewish educator for Texas Hillel.

“This is not a political statement,” Brustin said. “It’s not new for the Jewish community to incorporate these ideas of freedom into a Seder. This is about shared history and about the belief that is true of all traditions — to love our neighbors as ourselves and to find ways to create opportunities for everybody to live freely.”

Printed on Friday, March 30, 2012 as: Hillel hosts Mexican citizens in exile