2016-07-27
WASHINGTON (RNS)--As he has done every year for more than half a century, Herb Rosenbaum will celebrate the Jewish observance of Passover on April 19, breaking matzo and reciting prayers to commemorate the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

But between the end of the Seder meal and the telling of the second half of the Exodus story, Rosenbaum plans to introduce a new element to the observance: writing letters to political prisoners abroad.

"The whole notion of the Seder celebration is about the attainment of freedom from slavery and oppression," said Rosenbaum, a retired political science professor from Long Island, who is participating for the second year in Amnesty International USA's Passover Action for Human Rights project, in which people in the United States send letters to prisoners abroad.

"Writing the letters has the virtue of making concrete in our own time what some people might regard as something that only happened long ago in history," he said. "It's kind of a direct application of the very idea of the Seder." That's what the project's founder, Lyn Dobrin, said she hoped to accomplish. "I wanted to go beyond writing to government officials and think of creative ways to offer support to prisoners of conscience and to remind people that people are still suffering today," said Dobrin, co-leader of the Amnesty International chapter to which Rosenbaum belongs. She said she was inspired by the organization's Holiday Card Action Project, in
which U.S. families send support letters to prisoners abroad during the Kwanzaa and Christmas season. "I thought why not take that holiday card campaign and apply it to Passover? The story is about oppressed people. It seemed like an absolutely perfect connection." Amnesty USA launched a pilot Passover Action project on Long Island last year before initiating the nationwide effort this Passover season. "The tie-in between Passover and what Passover commemorates and the work of Amnesty International we think is an obvious one," said Michael O'Reilly, national casework director for AI USA and who helps choose which human rights abuses Passover Action will focus on. "During Passover people are remembering the hardships and slavery suffered by Jews thousands of years ago. Human rights violations existed 3,000 ago, and unfortunately they still exist in the same manner they existed then. Torture still occurs; slavery still occurs," he said. "Amnesty International works with the modern-day analogies to the hardships and slavery of the Jews." Such as the case of Makhbuba Kasymova, one of three cases the Passover project will focus upon this year. A member of the democratic opposition movement in Uzbekistan, Kasymova was given a five-year sentence for "concealing or failing to report a crime," according to AI, charges the group believes are false.

Or Ngawang Choezon, whom the project will also focus upon. A Tibetan nun imprisoned since 1992 in connection with a peaceful pro-Tibetan independence demonstration, Ngawang Choezon was initially given a five-year sentence but that was later stretched to 11 years after Chinese authorities learned she continued pro-democracy activities in prison, according to AI.

The Passover project will also highlight the plight of children soldiers in Uganda, who are frequently kidnapped and forced to work as slaves--sometimes as sexual slaves--for autonomy-seeking rebel forces in southern Uganda.

"We're looking for cases where there is the potential that the prisoner will actually receive the cards," said O'Reilly, "and we choose cases where we think a large outpouring of letters is likely to be beneficial. Prisoners have told us that they could tell when cards and letters came into prison; they were given better food, better treatment.

Even if the cards don't always reach the prisoner they reach prison authorities, and the authorities become aware that there are people around the world who are concerned about the prisoners inside the walls."

At least 600 families around the country are expected to participate in the project this year, said Vienna Colucci, director of membership networks for Amnesty International USA.

"This is something that's really catching on," said Colucci. "I would hope we could expand this internationally at some point."

The cards are simple, offering short, supportive messages: "We're thinking of you. We wish you well. We wish you freedom. You have a friend."

"We don't include any religious messages because the prisoners come from different faith backgrounds," said Colucci. "And we don't mention any political situation because you don't want to antagonize the authorities. We just want something to let the prisoners know people in the world are thinking about them; they're not forgotten."

Whether the cards actually reach the intended recipient is not always certain, said Dobrin.

"When you do this work you're really working in the dark because you just don't know where your letters are going," she said. "You hope the letters are going to the people they're supposed to even though you don't hear back. But we have the hope, and that's why you do the work."

Amnesty believes the effort may have paid off last July, when Dita Indah Sari, a labor rights activist from Indonesia, was released from prison after serving three years of a five-year sentence for attempting to organize a labor union. Thousands of letters reportedly inundated the prison where she was kept.

"We don't always know whether it was our letters that helped free somebody, but we're thrilled just the same," said Dobrin. "We have to write the letters, it could mean someone's freedom."

Prisoners abroad can be remembered in other ways as well during the Passover Seder, said Dobrin. She suggested celebrators could end the Exodus story with a phrase whose English translation is "Blessed art Thou, O God, who opens the door of the captives. Next year we may be able to celebrate with those we honor here tonight and join them in a toast to freedom."

"We're encouraging people to think about where else this would fit in their Seder," said Dobrin. "People can remember political prisoners by keeping an empty chair in commemoration of a person who is in prison, or maybe at some point in the Seder a guest could give some background on where the prisoners are from--you could even have a globe there so when you talk about Uganda you can say `this is where it is.' There are lots of different ways to do it."

The Passover Action project is vital to remembering that suffering continues even today, said Julia Sukenick, who took part in the Long Island pilot project last year with her husband.

"Freedom is a vital thing to all people, and that's what Passover is all about," said Sukenick. "People are put in jail for the wrong reasons all over the world, and that one letter you send to them can more power than you think it does."

Stephanie McEvily, a Roman Catholic attorney who also participated in the Long Island pilot project last year, agreed.

"The Exodus story is not simply past history," said McEvily, who has attended Passover Seders at her neighbor's home for the past 10 years. "It's easy to forget the Exodus story has relevance even today--people are enslaved and suffering now just like they suffered then. That's why we write the letters, to remember that while we celebrate the Jews who broke free from oppression."

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