Benedict Killang recalled being evicted from his home in South Sudan at age 13, fleeing with other youths in a deadly, desperate dash to a refugee camp where he waited for years before getting a chance to come to the United States.
So when he was invited to join close to 200 people Monday night for a ritual seder meal on the first night of the weeklong Passover holiday at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland, he found the ritual new yet familiar.
Passover marks the story of the divine deliverance of Israelite slaves.
“The feast you have today is the same feast that I have today also in my heart,” Mr. Killang told the congregation. “It reminds me of the freedom I experienced when I was given the opportunity to come here to the U.S.”
Mr. Killang, who came to Pittsburgh 11 years ago, now works with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, helping refugees resettle and find work. He attended the meal with his daughter Hadia, 10, and son, Miracle, 2.
Also invited was Sancha Rai, service coordinator at JFCS and a native of Bhutan, his wife, Suk Rai, and son Sagun.
Mr. Rai said he, too, spent years in a refugee camp after being driven from his native land before coming to the United States five years ago.
He said he’s grateful for the chance to move here and that many Bhutanese have settled into schools and jobs around Allegheny County. “This place is very nice and welcoming and safe and affordable,” he said.
But he had feared his cultural background being swallowed by the larger culture. Seeing that the Jewish congregation had been maintaining its own distinctive religious and cultural traditions, such as Passover, encouraged him.
“This makes me assured I can keep my tradition and culture in this country,” said Mr. Rai, a Hindu.
The seder meal illustrates that ancient story with symbolic foods. Mr. Killang and his children, as well as Mr. Rai and his wife and young son, took part in such things as the ritual dipping of a green herb in salt water, symbolizing the mixture of the promise of spring with the tears of slavery.
They tasted the bitter herbs and the mixture reminiscent of the sweeter charoset, reminiscent of the mortar used by the ancient Israelite slaves as they laid bricks. Mr. Rai’s son Sagun, 6, took an especial liking to the crisp matzo, or unleavened bread, which recalls how the Israelites were in such a rush to escape Egypt they couldn’t delay by waiting for their bread to rise before baking it.
While Passover is traditionally celebrated with meals at home, Rodef Shalom is one of many congregations that holds communal meals during the holiday for those who live alone, aren’t able to prepare their own celebrations or want to be with a larger group.
“I always like to have guests, both to introduce members of the community to our traditions and to have opportunities to learn from people of different backgrounds,” Rabbi Aaron Bisno said. “The theme of Passover is a universal theme about stepping into the mythic story of moving from a place of constriction and challenge to redemption and liberation and deliverance.”
He added: “It’s a universal story we see in our own lives individually and in every community. We see ourselves in the ancient story and recognize we are part of an ongoing story for all people.”
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published April 17, 2014 12:00 AM