OPINION: Pesach re-imagined thanks to Little Amal, global symbol of human rights

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OPINION: Pesach re-imagined thanks to Little Amal, global symbol of human rights

How a 12-foot puppet of a Syrian refugee child inspired me, writes JW3's Raymond Simonson.


Every year at this time, with Pesach fast approaching, I, in common with Jewish parents the world over, usually feel quite stressed.

It’s not just the stress of the Pesach shopping (oy, those prices!) and the cleaning (how on earth can the inside of an oven get that filthy when we clean it after every use?), and the cooking (why did I insist on making one Ashkenazi and two different types of Sefardi charoset this year?), although dayenu, that really would have been enough.

No, as a parent who wants their children to really get something meaningful out of the seder, I’m usually more stressed by the thought of how to achieve that.

JW3 chief executive Raymond Simonson

Especially as much of my professional life is spent thinking about how to make Jewish history, culture and values relevant and meaningful for people in creative ways.

And so, in the week before Pesach I am often stressed, thinking about how to make our seder more meaningful. Not this year though.

This year I had an inspiring pre-Pesach experience. And it’s all thanks to a 10-year-old Syrian girl – Little Amal, who touched our lives in a profound way.

Little Amal is the 12-ft puppet of a Syrian refugee child, and has become a global symbol of human rights, especially those of child refugees. In the past two years she has been greeted by more than a million people across 13 countries on large, festive public walks. The aim of these walks is to draw attention to the huge numbers of children fleeing war, violence and persecution, each with their own story, each crying out to not be forgotten or ignored.

Little Amal, Godson Studios

A few months ago, JW3’s programming director, William Galinsky, came to me with the idea of bringing Little Amal to JW3 for Pesach, as the message of freedom from slavery and oppression felt apposite.

We discussed how this could be a fantastic experiential learning opportunity, combining arts, culture, community and conversation – a recipe that JW3 does uniquely well – and how it could be expanded to work with partners across Christian and Muslim communities, taking in Easter and Ramadan themes too, to be even more inclusive.

Due to the urgency of the debate around refugees in the UK under this current government, Little Amal’s creators were excited to bring her back to the UK for a London-based, cross communal, multi-faith walk. It would be a chance to remind people of the simple humanity that is too often missing in media and public conversations and political rhetoric around refugees.

Little Amal, eating matzah. Pic: Godson Studios

And so, last Sunday morning, we found ourselves in the JW3 piazza with more than 600 people of all ages, from across all corners of the Jewish community, as well as non-Jewish friends and neighbours, welcoming Little Amal into our Jewish home.

We recreated key aspects of the seder on a giant scale, before we joined her on a parade down to a playground in West Hampstead, where hundreds of children helped her successfully search for the hidden Afikomen.

The whole experience welcoming Little Amal into our Jewish home was moving and profound. People clamoured to hold her hand, held their babies up for her to meet, laughed, cried and even danced a spontaneous hora with her, led by my youngest daughter and me.

Rabbi David Mason (Muswell Hill United Synagogue) explained to everyone present – including actress Emma Thompson, the MP Margaret Hodge, and local refugees who are supported by JW3’s social action projects – how on Pesach we are reminded that we must love the stranger as ourselves, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand (Pears Foundation) taught how matzah
is the bread of freedom, telling Amal that as with the broken Afikomen, we cannot
be complete whilst children like she are still separated from their families.

And I left knowing that for all of us present this year’s Pesach already feels extra meaningful and relevant.

  • Raymond Simonson is Chief Executive of JW3
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