Monday, I attended a special seder. About 200 Tucsonans, not all Jews, recalled during a Passover dinner the history of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The Passover is a story of survival and triumph. It is a universal story narrated over 3,000 years of a peoples’ escape and search for freedom.

However, we do not have to turn to ancient history to remember the exodus. Today, here in our desert, just miles from our homes, schools and businesses, we continue witnessing stories of survival and, tragically, the deaths of human beings seeking their freedom.

The Freedom Seder at Temple Emanu-El on North Country Club Road near East Broadway was sponsored by the temple and Humane Borders, a volunteer group based in Tucson that strives to prevent migrant deaths by placing barrels of water in the desert.

Creating the connection between the Jewish historical experience and our present narratives was not hard. Rabbi Samuel Cohon reminded us of one of the most critical teachings in the Jewish cannon: “Saving a life is at the heart of our faith.”

That mandate is also central to my Christian faith as a practicing Roman Catholic.

Likewise, doing nothing to prevent the deaths of migrants in our desert violates our faith, whether it be Christian, Jewish, any other faith or none at all. Respecting life is the highest measure of our humanity.

Cohon acknowledged his role when he admitted he needed to know more about the plight of migrants crossing the border and to do more to prevent their deaths.

The vast majority of Tucsonans and Southern Arizonans are indifferent to the migrants’ deaths. Southern Arizonans may be moved when we hear or read about the deaths of men, women and children, but apparently not enough to act.

Groups such as Humane Borders, No More Deaths and Samaritans have been active for about 10 years in Tucson. Volunteers have been deployed to the deserts in Arivaca, Sasabe and the Tohono O’odham Nation to rescue migrants.

But volunteers are few and the humanitarian groups live hand-to-mouth on sparse donations. Moreover, most of the volunteers with these groups are non-Latinos, although migrant-crossing deaths are overwhelmingly of Latinos.

The silence of the Latino community in Southern Arizona can be heard over steep rocks, across the harsh mountains, along the narrow arroyos where the bodies of people from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries are buried.

Most Southern Arizonans have seen television news reports in which Border Patrol agents and medical personnel collected bodies eviscerated by dehydration and injuries. There have been stories of families searching for ghosts, bodies which will never be found.

Our collective answer to our present day exodus? We shake our heads in denial and shut our eyes.

We leave to others the task of preventing deaths. We tell ourselves that these deaths are not our problem. We castigate the dead for having tried to cross the border in search of a better life and to reunite with family members north of the line.

Sadly, the living betray the dead and their families.

At the seder we were reminded that our greatness as a community and as a country is not measured by the amount of money we have or the number of soldiers in uniform, not by how many universities we have built.

Our greatness is measured by our compassion, how we treat others, especially the poor, the vulnerable, the elderly and children, and immigrants who cross our desert.

In the Jewish faith the prophet Elijah returns each generation dressed as someone who is oppressed. He wanders among us and waits to witness how we treat others.

Elijah is still waiting.Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187. Follow him on Twitter @netopjr

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187. Follow him on Twitter @netopjr