Whenever the Torah wishes to impress on us the Mitzvah of having compassion and sympathy for the oppressed in society, it reminds us of our similar helplessness and lowly status during our bondage in Egypt. The most defenseless elements in society are usually the slaves, strangers, widows, and orphans, and we are repeatedly enjoined by the Torah to be sensitive to their plight. The stranger, in particular, personifies the helpless one who has no family or friends to intercede on his behalf. For this reason, as the Talmud indicates, the Torah exhorts us in thirty-six references to treat the stranger kindly.
—Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Passover, more than any other holiday on the Jewish calendar, requires us to empathize with the stranger in our midst as we recall our own people’s journey. We join together at the Seder to remember slavery in Egypt and recall what it was like to be a people wandering alone, with no one to come to our aid, without knowing where to turn. The story tells us we were the strangers. And we can never forget what it was like to be strangers in a strange land.
Thousands of years later, we Jews never fully managed to shake the notion of being the stranger. We have never been totally accepted. Certainly, there are places in this world where we never will be. This is why we, of all of the faiths of the world, will always support the wanderers, the people cast aside and left alone with seemingly nowhere to turn.
As you have seen in recent days, CJP made the decision to partner with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston to help fund their essential work in support of individuals and families trying to navigate this new and often frightening terrain, one in which it seems to immigrants that being in the wrong place at the wrong time could result in jail or even deportation. That a child’s spring day at a neighborhood school could be their last. That an arriving father or sister could be detained at the airport and sent back to their country of origin, separated from their family for an indefinite period.
There’s no dispute that protecting our borders is a critical responsibility. But for the 180,000 undocumented immigrants already living as our neighbors here in Greater Boston who are already part of our society and who represent no threat to our country, the feeling of suddenly being the stranger, is as overwhelming as it is terrifying.
Exodus as an ‘Organizing National Myth’
Our Torah does not command any particular policy regarding immigrants, but it does command us to remember where we came from and to feel the pain, intensely and personally, of the stranger. So, to alleviate that pain, part of our Jewish community’s response is reaching out with our partners at Catholic Charities.
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
As David Brooks notes in his brilliant column, “The Unifying American Story,” the national narrative for this nation of immigrants is, in fact, Exodus: the story of Passover. In this new era of proposed travel bans and well-publicized ICE raids, the Exodus story — so central to our national character and our unity as a nation — is in danger of being lost.
“[Exodus] is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives us an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history,” Brooks writes. “The Exodus story has many virtues as an organizing national myth. It welcomes each new group and gives it a template for how it fits into the common move from oppression to dignity. The book of Exodus is full of social justice — care for the vulnerable, the equality of all souls.”
I believe that it is our responsibility, as individuals and as an organization, to reinforce the American dream. We each add our own chapter to it and teach it to our children. Immigrants in this country are the stranger once again, and it is up to us to help them add their chapter to America’s story.
A New Level of Desperation
Debbie Rambo, president of Catholic Charities, works on the front line with immigrants. Her organization has assisted immigrants for decades, just as CJP has for more than 100 years. In this new climate, she is seeing something completely different than she has in the past: a new level of desperation.
“Even those who are documented are in fear not only for friends or family members, but they worry themselves if their documentation is ‘good enough’ to keep them safe,” Debbie said. “Sadly, we hear from our school colleagues that children in their classrooms are in tears — worried about the consequences of changing policies.”
I think of my own family history. My grandfather, Harry Markowitz, and my grandmother Bessie, for whom I am named, arrived in the United States in 1905. It was a period during which the gates to the country were relatively open. Yet there were also powerful voices calling for the tide of immigration to be turned back, a nativist and nationalist groundswell from people fearful of immigrants taking jobs and committing crimes.
Even the most ardent opponent of immigration cannot deny the contribution that these newly-arrived Americans made in the 20th century. Their sacrifices for this country in both World Wars were too numerous to count; their innovation and ingenuity brought America to the forefront of the world. That might have not been their fate had the borders of this great country been sealed off. And I think about Harry and Bessie and how fortunate they were to be a decade or two ahead of those nativist voices gaining power here that shut off immigration to this great country for many.
I love this country because I have seen what it did for the last generation of Jews in crisis: those trapped in the former Soviet Union and denied basic rights. We fought for them and successfully lobbied to achieve refugee status for our brothers and sisters. Now they are here, enriching our community, and their children are making incredible contributions to our society.
I love this country because I saw my son’s graduating class at Columbia University, a diverse group representing every race, religion, gender, and orientation. This is what America is about. America is the great coming together in security and inclusiveness, each new group adding their talents and rich culture.
Not Political, But Ethical and Humanitarian
Our support for this critically important work on behalf of immigrants should not be construed as political. It is ethically based and humanitarian.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, in numbers almost too large to count, Jews, including all four of my grandparents, came to America. They loved this country, its freedom, its opportunity, its diversity. For a time, “proclaiming liberty” and “lightening the load of suffering mankind” became the predominant theme of almost all American Seders — Orthodox and Reform, secular and socialist.
In 1889, the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration coincided with Passover. American Jews — Reform and Orthodox, socialist and secular — received a picture of George Washington with every 10 pounds of matzah they bought. Many of those Jews proudly displayed George Washington’s picture at their Seder tables and celebrated the “George Washington Seder.”
So, perhaps this year, as we sit down at the Seder, remembering who we are and the meaning of Passover, we might read Emma Lazarus’ poem, “New Colossus.” It is one of the best-known poems in American history. Born in New York City, Emma was inspired by the many ships arriving at Ellis Island from Europe. They were teeming with desperate people and carrying many of our relatives from hostile, broken lands. To this day, I can’t read these words without thinking of my grandparents and their tears when they saw the statue — I can’t read them without crying myself.
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
—Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
We all know the last few lines, but the entire poem is worth reading. To me, it signifies what America should aspire to be: the glow of a worldwide welcome after a long, arduous Exodus.