I begin this morning with a memory from when I was eight years old.
My grandfather was marking his 60th birthday, and my parents decided to throw him a surprise party. The gathering morphed into a family reunion. We easily had more than 35 relatives in attendance (which was gigantic for our small clan)! To commemorate the occasion: my father convened everyone for a formal portrait.
It’s hard to remember back to when we actually had to wait for film to be developed. But some time later, the pictures from the party arrived - and low and behold - the formal portrait came out great.
I remember how my grandparents were immediately seized by an idea.
It wasn’t enough for them to hang a copy of the photo on their wall. They had heard that Ellis Island was actively collecting documents and memorabilia from families that had come through Ellis Island earlier in the 20th century. My grandparents had an intense desire for our photo to be stored there. And it was.
All four of my grandparents were first generation Americans. All four of them were the children of immigrants.
And though we could easily imagine that the desire to assimilate could have made them embarrassed about their immigrant heritage, the opposite was true. They were proud of who they were. They were proud of the courage and determination that propelled their parents here, in search of a better life outside of the anti-Semitic, poverty-stricken Russian Pale of Settlement. And they were proud beyond words of this extraordinary democracy, which so warmly welcomed them.
Visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were like spiritual pilgrimages for me when I was a kid. I was taught to believe that the Statue was a physical manifestation of a nation that did not discriminate, regardless of the race, ethnicity, or religion of the people who lived here.
With a heavy heart, I stand before you this morning, concerned that our country has lost its way when it comes to immigration policies and politics.
The shofar needs to be sounded, when some in this country are inclined to bar refugees from entering just because they happen to be Muslim or come from a Muslim country.
The shofar needs to be sounded, when some in this country believe that America is safest and strongest when it builds walls to keep those it doesn’t want physically out.
And the shofar needs to be sounded, when some in this country would insensitively round up and kick out those who were young children when they were unwittingly brought here without documents by their parents.
We sound the shofar today, not as a result of a knee jerk partisan political reaction, which never has any place in a synagogue, but because these efforts run contrary to the foundational values and beliefs of our Jewish tradition.
The Jewish experience is a narrative that has refugees and immigrants at its core.
We will read later this morning of Abraham and his profound faith. But we forget that Abraham’s faith was forged as a spiritual refugee. Abraham, the first Jewish person, began his adult life frightened and vulnerable, as he searched for a new home where he could express his beliefs freely.
We know this about Abraham because the Torah makes a point of emphasizing that he was an immigrant. The Biblical Author uses these incredible words to introduce us to Abraham, in Genesis 12:1:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם
The Invisible and Mysterious Holy One said to Abram,
You shall go forth!
from your land,
from the place where you were born,
from that place of your father’s house and your father’s traditions
אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
to the land that I will show you.
Abraham was a refugee. His conscience would not allow him to practice his ancestral polytheism, and so he left present-day Iraq, and went westward to the Guldeneh Medineh of his day - the Land of Israel - so that he might live in peace as an ethical monotheist.
Abraham was not the only one of our founding ancestors who was a refugee. His grandson, Jacob, was an economic refugee. In the face of heart-rending poverty and hunger, Pharaoh instructs Jacob’s son Joseph at Genesis 45:18: Take your father and your households and come down to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land.’
And how could we possibly forget that Moses and the more than 600,000 Israelites that accompanied him were all political refugees. They lived in Egypt, stateless - without rights, and without papers. They were forced to navigate the whims of an evil dictator, and ultimately sought freedom instead of servitude.
Our biographies inform our perspective on the world. And so it is no surprise that Abraham, and Jacob, and Moses’ biographies impacted the Jewish values that grew out of their experiences.
What, exactly, does our tradition say about how we should treat the immigrant and refugee?
Consider these words from Leviticus 19:33-34 - which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon each year: When a stranger resides […] in your land, you shall not wrong him. For the stranger who resides with you shall be […] as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of 19th century Germany was struck by the Biblical Author’s definition of liberty and equality, which relies on a sense of common, shared humanity, rather than formal, legal citizenship.
Hirsch wrote: “The […] shocking Egyptian persecution of the Israelites is rooted in their false concept of the resident alien whose status entails no rights. The law of the resident alien within Jewish law is the absolute opposite […]. The level of justice in a state is to be measured not by the rights of citizens, wealthy and well-connected to those who will represent them in times of need, but rather by the sense of justice to which the defenseless resident alien is entitled. […] This principle separates human dignity from the accident of birth and upbringing.”
Leviticus 19’s admonition that we treat the stranger and the immigrant exactly as we would treat ourselves is repeated 35 other times in the Torah. It is the single most repeated commandment of our Tradition. It is the very core of what it means to be Jewish: to treat the one who is other, who is different from us…just as we would expect to be treated. We know what it feels like to be different. And so we must break the chain of discrimination. We are called to welcome those who are different with open arms.
There are tangible things that we can do, and should do, to better welcome those who are different into our midst.
First, we can become more civically engaged.
It is a blessing to live in this democracy, and to have the right for our voices to be heard. Pick up the phone and call your congressperson. Tell them that you stand with the Union for Reform Judaism and its Religious Action Center when it comes to bringing about comprehensive immigration reform. Or make use of the link we will be sending out shortly so that you can automatically email our representatives in Washington. Becoming engaged in civic advocacy is an important first step in this process. But there are also direct, hands on service opportunities that are available to all of us.
To begin, I want to acknowledge the extraordinary leadership of our own Stephen and Monica Gordon, Rheba Rosenbluth, and Social Action Committee chair Karen Chapro. Over the last few months, thanks to their tireless efforts, SSTTE has become an active part of a larger regional cohort that is working to resettle refugees in Westchester. Many of you have already generously supported those efforts by way of donated supplies and financial contributions. (And the project is still collecting financial contributions, by the way, from those who are so moved.) Thank you to all of you who have given or will give. We can be proud of our congregation’s involvement on a regional level.
But there is so much more work to be done.
HIAS (which my grandparents knew as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, but is now just HIAS because they serve immigrants of all backgrounds) is seeking volunteers. They are looking for:
- English language conversation partners for new refugees and asylum seekers for several hours a week
- Volunteers for a letter writing program to asylum seekers in detention
- And lawyers who can provide pro bono assistance to those pursuing asylum or humanitarian protection in the United States
Again, we’ll be sending out information in the coming days about all these opportunities, and I hope you’ll respond to them.
Finally, I invite you and your family to join me on a homecoming of sorts.
We are now organizing a group trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on Sunday November 12th. The journey will of course be an opportunity to honor our individual family histories. But I hope that our travel there will also give us the opportunity to study and reflect together. As with any pilgrimage, this one has the capacity to transform and move us towards further re-commitment to help the vulnerable in our midst.
I have been asking myself: Why do I feel called, now, to sound the shofar for immigrants and refugees?
America has 11.3 million undocumented individuals living in the shadows. That should have been reason enough for me to be concerned.
And there are 790,000 so-called Dreamers whose status remains uncertain. That should have been reason enough for me to be concerned.
And the statistics of those who suffer internationally are even more disturbing and startling: 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million seeking asylum. That should have been enough for me to be concerned.
And yet: I admit that I’m standing addressing this subject this morning because of the horror of what happened in Charlottesville at the end of the summer.
Perhaps, on the face of it, there isn’t a direct connection between our country’s immigration policies on the one hand, and the disgusting persistence of racism and anti-Semitism on the other.
But for me, Charlottesville was a wake up call about an ideological alignment in this country that remains habitually suspicious of minorities and those who are different.
For us to be silent about racial discrimination, and to be silent about tendencies to discriminate against the immigrant and refugee, is tantamount to others being cowed into silence on anti-Semitism. And just as we expect that those who are different from us are going to stand up for us, so too should they rightly expect that we will be there for them.
So: we sound the shofar this morning. Because being an immigrant and an outsider is intrinsic to being part of the Jewish People.
We don’t just have an obligation to stand up for ourselves. We also have to stand up for others - particularly, for the ones who don’t have a full voice in our country. We speak for the ones who are discriminated against and marginalized…because we know what it feels like to be treated as second class citizens. Because we know that any atmosphere that is unsafe for minorities and for those who are different is unsafe for Jews as well.
We do all this because loving the other is the very best of what Judaism stands for. And it’s the very best of what America stands for too.
It was in this spirit that Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet, wrote these words, which are lovingly adorned to the Statue of Liberty:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
This is my prayer: Let us open our hearts, and our doors. And let us lift up our lamps - to light the way toward a world in which those who look, and speak, and think, and believe differently, can figure out a way to create a home, a nation, and a world - together.