USF Celebrates Jewish Passover, Raises Questions about Human Rights

USF held a Seder to observe Passover last Sunday where Rabbi Lee Bycel spoke about the importance of human rights in relation to the Jewish holiday. (Andrew Jimenez|Foghorn)

Why was Monday night unlike all other nights at the University of San Francisco?

In McLaren Hall, the soft murmur of hesitant, reverent chanting could be heard, punctuated by the serious voice of Rabbi Lee Bycel. Around a hundred people had gathered to mark USF’s first annual Passover Seder, which sought to draw attention to the oppression and genocide of the Darfuri people.

This event was sponsored by USF’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, as well as by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization that, according to its website, is dedicated to pursuing justice and “alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality.” Bycel is the executive director of this organization.

“We’re here to experience this Seder in this moment, sit together in solidarity, and to recognize the danger in saying ‘That’s what happened way back when,’” Bycel said. “Tonight I want you to think about the boys and girls in today’s Egypt enslaved by another pharaoh.”

This “Egypt” is the Darfur region of Sudan, where, according to the AJWS, over 450,000 Darfuri people have died from violence, disease and malnutrition since 2003, and 2.47 million have been displaced within Darfur. An additional 185,000 are refugees in Chad.

The audience was constantly reminded of the plight of the Darfuri people by the projection of a repeating reel of photographs of refugees: a young girl carrying her little sister on her back, the wide staring eyes of three Sudanese boys, and one of the many ramshackle makeshift residences found in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, overcrowded with millions of inhabitants.

Also noticeable was the meal set before the attendees, which included matzah (unleavened bread), cottage cheese, carrots and celery, tuna salad, egg salad and a stick of butter—a meal which seemed meager, but, Bycel said, would be seen as a feast by many of the impoverished people across the world.

The symbolic Seder plate, however, remained bare. “Until the people of Darfur are free, the plate of Seder will not be full,” said Bycel.

Attendees were provided with the Haggadah, a Jewish text that guides Passover Seders, as well as excerpts and quotations from human rights advocates like Elie Wiesel, Langston Hughes and the Dalai Lama. Bycel led the Seder by choosing audience members to read aloud from the Haggadah and encouraging audience participation in group reading and song. Throughout the ceremony, the rabbi asked questions to stimulate an emotional connection with the audience and to incite them to consider their social responsibilities.

“Passover is about making the world better, making people freer. What are we going to do to make this world better?” Bycel demanded.

The audience came forward with questions of their own.

“What is the responsibility of each of us?” one asked.

“Why hasn’t the U.S. government done more?” demanded another.

“Why aren’t the aid workers being let back into the region?”

“Why have we become so numb?”

Martina Knee of the San Francisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition said, “The reason Darfur continues to go on is the lack of political will to end it. Not one politician will lose an election because they failed to do something about genocide.” However, she said, “If enough people make noise, politicians will listen.”

The event provoked ideas about the importance of Judaism to social justice on the world stage. The Jewish holiday of Passover was used to highlight the need for liberation from modern-day enslavement. Aaron Hahn Tapper, the director of the Swig Program and professor of Jewish studies, said, “The goal of the program was to raise awareness on human rights issues and offer ways to deal with and end them.”

“Now I see how much Judaism has to do with the global community,” said Paul Jimenez, sophomore business major and one of Hahn Tapper’s students.

“I think things like this are really important to have on campus, especially because USF is full of people who find environmental and social issues important to address,” said Nora Torres, sophomore psychology major.
Jimenez said that he was deeply impacted by the Seder. “I came without expectations, and I’m leaving with a motivation to go out and do something about the genocide.” He would like to get involved in the San Francisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition.

Knee too was pleased with the results of the Seder and said that students should take action beyond simply discussing social justice. “The thought of celebrating Passover with the theme of social justice appealed to me. People are enslaved all over the world, and this Passover was more meaningful in a real-world context,” she said. “Now, lots of advocacy organizations make it easy to take action. Phone calls, internet petitions, e-mails – these things take one minute of your time. Just do them.”

To get involved, students may contact the SF Bay Area Coalition at or go the following resources:


4 thoughts on “USF Celebrates Jewish Passover, Raises Questions about Human Rights

  1. This is a very well written article about what sounds like a great event. Sad I couldn’t make it due to class. But I really appreciate how the newly revamped Judaic Studies minor seems to incorporate social justice into every aspect of even the most traditional Jewish holidays.

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