“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” -Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley.
I’m proud of the stance taken by the governor of my state. The plight of young children coming into the US, fleeing persecution is one we can relate to. The Jewish tradition has reminded us for millennia, that the land is not ours free of charge, but rather that it is God’s, to distribute to whom God will, and that our souls are weighed by the way we remember our privilege, and to what extent we share it.
The Talmud teaches, “The men of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, blessed be He, had lavished upon them. …. They said: Since there cometh forth bread out of [our] earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish refuse to allow strangers to come to our land, as it is written, The flood breaketh out from the inhabitants, they are forgotten of the foot; they are dried up, they are gone away from men.(Job 28:4) (Sanhedrin 109a)”
But it seems that in every generation, we had need of a reminder: a story is told of the Gaon of Vilna, who sat with voice but no vote on the Council of the Jews of Vilna. His task was to comment from a Torah perspective on new legislation proposed before the Council. When there was no such new legislation, he did not take part in the meeting.
One day a member of the Council put forward a proposal for ending or greatly reducing the influx of Jews from poorer regions into Vilna, where they hoped for a better life. The Gaon rose to leave the meeting. “But Rabbi,” said a Council member, “we need your comment on this proposed new legislation!” “What new legislation?” said the Gaon. “This was already the law of Sodom, long ago!” And he left. The proposal was dropped.
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I am an immigrant to the United States. I am the holder of a green card—the documentation that gives me the status of “permanent resident.” I arrived at this status by way of a J1 visa (to enable me to work at a Jewish summer camp for a season), an F1 visa (a 1 year visa when I came to Hebrew Union College as a visiting student), then another J1 visa (another summer at camp), then another F1 visa (because I had transferred my rabbinic studies from the UK to the USA), and then two R1 visas (temporary religious worker visa—one needs to hold this and have a minimum of two years unbroken employment before one can begin the green card application; most people need to apply for two rounds, otherwise their authorization to work will run out before their green card has been processed).
That’s seven rounds of paperwork, lawyers fees and application fees. The cost was around $15000. And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a rabbi, congregations who needed not just “a rabbi,” but a rabbi that was a good match for their community, could present the need for my presence in the U.S. much more precisely than is the case in many other lines of work.
You might think that, after such a complex and drawn-out process (9 years in total), I would not be pleased at the thought that others were living and working here entirely undocumented. You might think that I would not be supportive of their hopes that a path to citizenship be attainable without having to go through the process that I so diligently observed.
But you’d be wrong.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the means, the language skills, and the communal support, to do all that I did and wait my turn. I cannot fathom how someone crossing the border from Mexico, hoping to make a little money on a tomato or orange farm to send back to family, could possibly navigate or afford what I did. I cannot imagine a woman, arriving under the guise of a tourist, but then remaining to avoid the sexual assaults she suffered in her native land, and now working nights cleaning offices, could gather the means to do as I did.
Next week is the festival of Shavuot. There are many themes in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read at this time, but it is not difficult to find the story of an immigrant in this book, and all that is gained when the stranger is greeted with compassion and provided with the opportunity to make a life and contribute positively to a society, instead of hiding in the shadows.
As Rabbi Natan Levy recalls from that story, on the Times of Israel blog,
“…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers: Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes out of the heat of the Israeli summer. And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have found grace in your eyes that you should recognize me (l’hakireni)—Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”
Rabbi Levy, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, goes on to note that the word meaning “to recognize” (to grant rights and privileges) has the same Hebrew root as “to be a stranger/foreigner.” He says, “A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”
I am no expert on precisely what form new legislation to provide immigration reform should take. But on one thing I am clear. Jewish wisdom, paired with our own experiences of being the stranger, seeking a safe haven from oppression, demands compassion from us when we consider those who seek opportunity or safety among us. That is why I stand with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, in supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Drawing from a liturgy created especially for this Shavuot to reflect on this issue, we are reminded of a midrash on the Book of Ruth:
And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?
Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).
Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:
I am Ruth.
With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.
We are all Ruth.
I am Naomi.
I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter. On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.
We are all Naomi.
I am Boaz.
I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.
We are all Boaz.
On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth. (liturgy extracted from the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Initiative of The RAC).
“My father was a wandering Aramean.” With this quote, from Deuteronomy 26:5, we begin not only the Maggid (story-telling) portion of our Passover seders but also the very ontology of Judaism as an ethnicity. We originated as a wandering people and, for much of the past 2000 years, have remained a people dispossessed of a homeland, expelled from one location to the next. Migration is interwoven into our national fabric; it is part of Jewish DNA.
That is why I find the paucity of Jewish voices about domestic immigration reform so troubling. Congress is on the verge of addressing comprehensive immigration reform for the first time since the 1980s, but where are our Jewish organizations in this effort? To their credit, the Religious Action Center, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and other large organizations have passed resolutions and issued press releases supporting immigration reform. But where is the passion? Where is the zeal? The Jewish community certainly has it when it comes to issues impacting Israel; in recent years we have mobilized in highly effective ways for Darfur; and most recently have been at the forefront of gun control reform. But on an issue that speaks so deeply to our national consciousness—from the biblical mandate to care for the stranger to our historical experience of exile and persecution—we should be leading immigration reform efforts, not retroactively offering words of support.
Reports this past week suggest that a deal in the U.S. Senate is close at hand, but there are still political battles to be fought. Perhaps most significantly, some members of Congress are still reluctant to include language creating a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America, preferring instead a secondary “residency” status. We know first-hand what second-class status means. If we truly care about human dignity, if we embrace the “tzelem Elohim,” the spark of divinity, within each individual, then we ought to speak out in favor of opportunities for full citizenship in the immigration bill.
As we enjoy the last days of Passover and begin the sacred work of purifying our bodies, hearts, and minds in anticipation of Shavuot, let’s commit ourselves to purifying this nation of its immigration blight. Let’s ensure that decent, hard-working people don’t have to live in the shadows, terrified that deportation and exile lurk just around the corner. The transition from exile to redemption is the foundation of our national story. Let’s celebrate this core aspect of Judaism by leading the charge in immigration reform, so that eleven million people likewise can experience a contemporary redemption here in America.
David Brooks’s recent NYT column, “The Wealth Issue,” comes at an opportune time if you’re one of those people who reads the weekly parasha. As we make our way through the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Brooks offers a sort of meditation on what it means to integrate the experience of one’s ancestors.
In the piece, Brooks takes us back to Romney’s ancestors, who were among the early Mormon families who made their way first west to Utah and Arizona, and then later south to Mexico. He attempts to make the case that Romney has none of the negative characteristics that people associate with the rich. He is not “spoiled” or “cosseted,” nor has he been “corrupted by ease and luxury.” To the contrary, he is a hard worker, “tenacious” and “relentless,” having more in common with hardscrabble immigrants than with inheritors of great wealth.
To what does Brooks attribute these traits? To Romney’s family history. As the descendant of a persecuted, driven family, Romney “seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise.” Though he “can’t talk about his family history on the campaign trail…he must have been affected by it.”
At which point, the Jews enter the column. Brooks brings his own “family history” by way of conceding the point that Romney himself never lived a life of persecution or privation. Yet, he writes, “Jews who didn’t live through the Exodus are still shaped by it.” Brooks knows his readership, and it’s not for nothing that he analogizes Romney’s connection to his family history to that of a contemporary Jew connecting to the Exodus.
But the analogy doesn’t ring true in light of the ways that we Jews are supposed to be shaped by our memories of Exile and Exodus. Again and again, Torah reminds us that our experience of Egypt ought to make us compassionate toward others (including Egyptians!). “You know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9; see also Exod 22:21, Deut 23:7). Which is to say, our experience of persecution and the ensuing freedom ought not be only about making sure that we never find ourselves enslaved again (though that is indeed part of it). At their best, “child-of-Exodus-ethics” are about expanding our hearts to make room for today’s persecuted strangers, and not only about continuing to best today’s Pharaohs.
The State of Israel’s current status as refuge of choice for tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers makes for an interesting laboratory in which to consider this dynamic. Our ancient memories of persecution and deliverance, and our more recent memories from Europe, provide the backdrop for the current conversation in Israel about what to do with the Eritreans and Sudanese who have crossed the very desert that looms so large in our mythic memory. On the one hand are calls to deport them, in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state and to keep Israelis employed. On the other hand, many Israelis recognize the irony of Israel, of all places, not opening its doors to asylum-seekers. Like most things in the Jewish State, it’s not simple.
Also complicated is America’s relationship to the large population of immigrants currently residing here. Some certainly came seeking relief from danger and persecution at the hands of their government or criminals in their home countries. Many came simply to seek better wages and a better life. They too, confront us with the question: how do we, a nation of immigrants, relate to the people who are perhaps a few generations behind our own ancestors. Recognizing that complex political and economic considerations don’t make for easy answers, does our basic orientation to the problem have us feeling persecuted ourselves, and responding accordingly…or do we dig into the past and emerge with heightened compassion?
As I read the parshiot that tell the story of my family’s persecution and deliverance, the lessons that speak to me have less to do with our own current-day successes, and more to do with cultivating compassion for those who are currently in need of redemption (and acting accordingly). More than great wealth, more than relentless drive, that sort of compassion is something I seek to develop in myself, and something I admire in others (including presidential candidates).