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At Passover, Jews reflect on Syria, refugee crisis and extremism

Rabbi Michael White stands inside the sanctuary at

Rabbi Michael White stands inside the sanctuary at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on Friday, April 7, 2017. This Passover, which begins Monday and ends April 18, local rabbis are relating the holy days' message of the Jews' Exodus and freedom from slavery to modern strife, such as the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis. Credit: Steve Pfost

Passover, which starts Monday at sunset, is a joyous time to celebrate freedom as Jews recall the Exodus and their escape from slavery in Egypt some 3,300 years ago.

But this year, rabbis in local synagogues said, the holy days are shadowed by struggles afflicting parts of the planet, especially among refugees and the people of Syria.

“We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis in my lifetime, with millions displaced, millions homeless. And the world has ignored them,” said Rabbi Michael White of Temple Sinai of Roslyn.

“This year as we get to the 10 plagues of Egypt, how can a Jew not contemplate the horror of the Assad regime dripping gas on innocent civilians, on images of children writhing, gasping and dying,” he said of the chemical weapons attack allegedly unleashed in the Idlib province last week by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

More than 70 civilians, including 20 children, died in the attack, according to human rights organizations.

The themes of refugees and oppression are “pretty much on everybody’s radar screen,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center.

For many Jews, the weeklong Passover observances will start with two nights of special meals, or seders. During the meals, children ask four questions about the Passover ritual, and their parents respond by retelling the Exodus story. This year, Passover ends on April 18.

While the holy days commemorate the Jews’ escape from slavery, the message of faith, freedom, defiance and hope applies to all peoples, said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre.

“The message of Passover is that every people, all people on earth, have the right to be free, to live in freedom, and to live their lives without being subject to cruel oppression and without living in the fear and terror of chemical warfare,” said Klein, a former president of the New York State Board of Rabbis.

“Every year it’s Rwanda, it’s Sudan, it’s this place, it’s that place. But for the past few years, it’s been Syria,” he added. “And when does it end? When does the world decide that enough is enough, that the human cost has been way too high in Syria, too many people have suffered and died in this brutal war run by the Syrians and the Russians.”

President Donald Trump’s decision to launch missiles against Syria in response has heightened attention on the gas attacks, along with questions about what can be done to bring an end to the bloodshed there, some rabbis said.

“Passover teaches us that the battle against intolerance and extremism and tyrants is ongoing and needs to be consistent,” Buechler said.

“It took a long time for our ancestors to battle their way and find liberation. A one-time event doesn’t change reality,” he said. “It has to be an ongoing commitment to liberty, freedom and justice.”

Rabbi Joseph Topek, of the Hillel Foundation at Stony Brook University, said that ongoing struggle is symbolized by a fifth cup of wine left in the middle of the table at seder dinners that is not consumed. It is known as the cup of Elijah, the prophet who, when he arrives, is supposed to foreshadow the arrival of the Messiah.

Passover “is a joyous holiday, a celebration of liberation from bondage and to freedom,” Topek said. “But it’s also a reminder that the job is not really done.”

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