Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don’t need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis — carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children — attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill’s opponents took an “America First” approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for “our own” rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President’s own cousin testified that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator — who would later become one of the nation’s leading segregationists — amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b’Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: “We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move… We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, ‘when will mommy come get us?’ I don’t know what to tell them.”

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation’s southern border. (I literally couldn’t find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as “comparable to torture facilities.”

This is not okay. It shouldn’t be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn’t be okay with us.

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation’s current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It’s a human right, guaranteed by international law — law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today’s migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low

It’s easy to think that this doesn’t impact us directly. After all, we’re not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone — whether it’s a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say “hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it’s not our problem if someone else’s home is on fire” is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are “invading” this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being “invaders.” 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as “invaders” taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs… and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we’ve heard before. Maybe you’re thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh’s mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh’s chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph’s family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That’s the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel “swarmed” like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah’s exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don’t want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it’s a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who’s not like us. To love people who don’t look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won’t be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that’s a tough ask.

But that’s exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color… and, still, the refugee. That one hasn’t changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn’t this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it’s genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It’s tempting to say “this isn’t America.” No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn’t have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother’s funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was “Taps,” in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were “Jerusalem of Gold,” because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and “America the Beautiful,” in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!”

Some have said that “give me your tired, your poor” should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is “Come, come, whoever you are.” Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always.

And of course “Come, whoever you are” is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, “red” or “blue.” Political means “having to do with the polis,” the community. To say “come, whoever you are” is to say “the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah’s imperative to love the stranger.”

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah’s repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that’s been us, that’s been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say “come, whoever you are” not only because our people’s story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that’s the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation’s civic life today. It’s not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God’s creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation’s challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I’ll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Come, come, whoever you are
Ours isn’t a caravan of despair.  
It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows
A thousand times before: and yet again,
Come again, come, and yet again…
בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.
בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.  
מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים
אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן, עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב
בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא. עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב …

This is Rabbi Rachel’s sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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