Alejandra Spector

On Monday, April 8 at the Texas Hillel Jewish community center, the Latino-Jewish Student Coalition held their second annual Latino-Jewish Seder — a Passover Seder is when Jews tell each other the story of Jewish bondage and deliverence from Egypt. The Latino-Jewish Student Coalition used the occasion as an opportunity to talk about the current immigration debate. Monday was also Holocaust Memorial Day, where Jewish communities across the world remembered the most documented genocide in history. 

The organizer of the event, Tracy Frydberg, said that the event was an attempt to “draw a comparison” between the Seder and modern day oppression of our neighbors. She says that just as there are examples of non-Jews who hid Jews during the Holocaust, the Jewish community must be present and ready to stand with others facing dehumanizing circumstances. “We are taught to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and we should emphasize freedom, equality and opportunity,” Frydberg said. 

The event did just that, presenting the testimonies struggled and dehumanization: from childhood memories of hiding for fear of immigration officials, to separating of families, to impending deportation — despite a university degree and job offers — following a failed asylum request. 

The Latino-Jewish Seder accomplished its goals, but on a night when people around the world are reflecting on the Holocaust, those invoking comparisons to the Holocaust must tread carefully. While the Holocaust is the standard for how societies remember and relate to atrocities, some writers, such as Michael Freund of the Jerusalem Post, think that the Holocaust should be off-limits as it is unique in human history.

Alejandra Spector, an activist for Mexicanos en Exilio, a group that advocates on behalf of victims of the drug war, talked about her mixed Jewish-Mexican heritage and how she thought her education gave her a responsibility to speak out. She said that she grew up with stories of how the Jewish community was ignored and turned away from the United States during the Holocaust, and she now sees a similar situation as undocumented workers are treated like criminals. 

Bringing awareness to the violence, she said, causes a reaction that “this cannot be happening.” I talked to her after the meeting, and although she believes that her comparison of the current situation to the Holocaust might have been too strong, she contended, “In our family … we believe our Jewish past will save our Mexican future.” 

When asked about the trickiness of comparisons, she says that it is not about comparisons, but about realizing that “a human tragedy is a human tragedy, in Auschwitz or Guadalupe.”  

Regarding awareness of the violence, she says progress is being made. Although she is skeptical about its implementation, she points to the passage of the General Victims Law in Mexico. The law allows monetary reparations to drug war victims and puts the “search for disappeared persons” as a priority of the state. But the question still remains: Is it a desecration to compare general violence to the Holocaust? What is the line between constructing a common identity and hijacking and diminishing the Holocaust?

The Executive Director of the Hillel and campus Rabbi David Komerofsky attended the event. He says that we need a balanced approach when we discuss the Holocaust. “The Holocaust is incomparable in planning and magnitude, there were 6 million Jews systematically exterminated. However, there were also as many non-Jews that for various reasons also perished … recognizing this [the diversity of victims], far from diminishing the Holocaust, memorializes the victims.” When asked about the relationship to the Seder, Komerofsky responded, “I feel a responsibility as a Jewish person to use my freedom to free other people.” As for the dark connections between Jewish persecution, Passover and the current immigration debate, Komerofsky hopes that common experience will liven the debate, not diminish it: “If the Exodus becomes a part of our memory, it becomes enshrined … we tell stories. Stories that are always happy do not have any meaning.” 

Historically persecuted groups should not fear to use their stories to identify with those oppressed today. The word “genocide,” however, is used carelessly, and a horror on the level of the Holocaust cannot be easily invoked. But one phrase that Rabbi Komerofsky used today is especially apt to solve the dilemma of respect versus solidarity: “We often say ‘never again.’ We want ‘never again’ to mean not just ‘never again’ for Jews, but ‘never again’ for everyone.”

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.

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

Students attend the “Educated Eater” lunch, hosted by the Food Studies Project and Slow Food Texas, on Friday afternoon. These two groups aim to combine the enjoyment of food along with educational discussion of food issues by hosting free bi-weekly social lunches.

Photo Credit: Lingnan Chen | Daily Texan Staff

The Food Studies Project and Slow Food Texas are aiming to combine the enjoyment of food with education through a free biweekly social lunch for students.

The groups hosted the “Educated Eater” lunch, which offers students local food along with educational discussion about food issues. The program aims to connect students to food-related student organizations, and focuses on current cultural issues and trends concerning food.

Nutrition senior Jaclyn Anderson said Slow Food Texas is about reconnecting with one’s food and believes many people rush the experience of eating without fully appreciating it.

“By slowing the process of eating down and taking more time to understand where our food comes from, eating can be a pleasurable experience,” she said.

Alejandra Spector, Spanish senior and program developer of the Food Studies Project, said an important goal of the group is to focus on making ethical food decisions while enjoying local cuisine. Spector said the Food Studies Project hopes to educate both the food enthusiasts and food activists on the importance of understanding food.

“Debate between food ethics and food pleasure, or the foodies versus the activists, must be bridged,” Spector said. “You can get so much pleasure from knowing where your food comes from.”

Spector said that Slow Food Texas hopes that by slowing down the eating process people will be more aware of where and how they get their food.

“Food is culture and we are supposed to always be respectful of culture,” she said. “But what if culture is wrong? Am I allowed to even say that this is wrong?”

Solomon Wang, nutrition senior and food ambassador for the Food Studies Project, said the atmosphere of food culture in Austin tends to be more relaxed than elsewhere.

“Austin food culture is more casual and slow paced,” Wang said. “Restaurants in Austin have a community feeling.”

Daniel Heron, Spanish senior and member of the Food Studies Project, said he found food preferences in Austin to be different from his home of California.

“In California, it was all about the breakfast burrito, but here, it is all about the breakfast taco,” Heron said. “I had to adapt.”

Heron said the role of this new organization is to create a platform for food to be openly discussed and enjoyed. Heron said he has a long term goal of incorporating food education into every major at UT.

“We would like to create an institute at UT which focuses on food studies,” he said. “We are proving that there is demand for such an organization in order to receive funding.”

Printed on Monday, February 6, 2012 as: Educated Eater lunches give food for thought