Strangers and Refugees

By Rabbi Devorah Marcus, Temple Emanu-El

“Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” Over and over and over again in Torah, we are called upon to remember our humble ancestry and that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. This truth of our existence as strangers in strange lands has become an unending reality for our people as we have wandered this planet from one corner to the next. Some of our moves have been the result of forced population transfers, sometimes as slaves, sometimes as a persecuted people fleeing a hostile government, sometimes as refugees, sometimes as pursuers of hope and a better tomorrow. This is why so many of us in the Jewish community have felt a particular prophetic call to act in response to the Trump Administrations two decrees which have sought to limit and, in the case of Syria, permanently cease the admittance of refugees into our country.

On March 8, our community was privileged to sponsor and host a joint presentation with Jewish Family Service San Diego, ADL, the Leitchtag Foundation, and the Jewish Federation to continue a community conversation on the topic of refugees and our response to their plight as a Jewish community. Our keynote speaker for the evening was none other than Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. HIAS was originally founded in 1881 by the Jewish community in order to facilitate and aid the immigration of Jews from Europe and Russia, many of whom were fleeing violence, pogroms, conscription, and brutality.

Ironically, many of the same sentiments being expressed today to oppose the immigration of people from Arab nations and the acceptance of refugees from all nations, especially Syria, are echoes of the sentiments expressed to oppose Jewish immigration and Jewish refugees. Accusations were that Jews were unlikely to be loyal, to be assimilated, and would harbor Bolshevic or Communist views (depending on the years in question), that they would seek to undermine U.S. security and interests.

At the same time, we acknowledge and understand that many in our community have fears and concerns over refugees and immigrants from Arab nations and Syria. The countries on the immigration ban list are known for anti-Jewish attitudes and their unwillingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and her right to exist. Many in the Jewish community are concerned that by accepting immigrants and refugees from these nations, we run the risk of importing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. Our challenge is to recognize and wrestle with our own fears, concerns and biases. Our opportunity is to embrace the possibility that the only way we’re going to create meaningful peace in this world is by building relationships with the people we fear the most and know the least. We are not naïve in our commitment to helping immigrants and refugees – we are doggedly optimistic and committed to meaningful engagement, relationship building and dialogue. At the same time, we call attention to the fact that refugees fleeing Syria, Somalia, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and countless other countries that are not banned are trying to escape the very violence and hatred we all fear. We also call attention to the fact that the 9/11 hijackers came from nations not on the “ban” list.

Ultimately, our engagement comes down to a question of our Jewish obligations to welcome the stranger because, as Torah reminds us over and over and over again, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know the heart of the stranger. We know what it is to live in a perpetual state of existential anxiety. Especially at this time of year, the tensions between security and insecurity, between oppression and liberation, between persecution and safety, are particularly highlighted. We recently celebrated Purim-our holiday that explicitly explores the motifs of bigotry, intolerance, and the threat of genocide. This month we celebrate Passover and our deliverance from violent oppression. This month we sit at our tables for our seders and recount the miracle of the exodus from slavery in Egypt. We embrace the remembrance – Avadim Haeyinu! We were slaves! This sentiment echoes to us from the pages of the Haggadah and implores us to act as the ancient Egyptians should have acted as they witnessed our suffering.

We cannot remain silent in the face of closed doors. If America had opened her doors to our families fleeing Hitler’s Europe, six million of our people would not have been murdered. People seeking refuge on our shores today are coming from around the world, desperately seeking safety and an opportunity to live without mortal fear. They come from Haiti, from Ethiopia, from Uganda, from Iraq, from North Korea, from Myanmar, from El Salvador, from Mexico, from a thousand small corners of the world. We know their stories – we have lived their stories. We here in San Diego have long and proud history of welcoming refugees and through our community partners, especially Jewish Family Service, and we hope to continue that long tradition that reaches back to 1918 when the sixteen amazing women banded together to welcome and aid new immigrants and refugees here in San Diego.

This spring, we will be exploring the topic of refugees and our obligations to them in our Robert M. Gardner Memorial Scholars Series. On April 8, we’ll learn about the process of entering the country as a refugee and why it reflects the safest and most vetted group of immigrants our country has. We’ll learn from JFS about the profound and proud history of refugees being welcomed in San Diego, JFS’ own origins as an organization dedicated to assisting refugees, and who our refugee neighbors actually are. We’ll hear from refugees about their experiences and put faces to the nations and numbers. On April 22, we’ll welcome the internationally renowned scholar Rachel Korazim to reflect on the nature of a country that chooses to be by-standers rather than up-standers through the poetry of the Shoah and the post-Shoah generations. Finally, on May 12, we’ll engage in a community conversation on how we want to be involved and be advocates on behalf of refugees and immigrants who currently stand where our people once stood.

Guided by the wisdom of Torah and the best of our prophetic tradition, we hope to continue to demonstrate America’s greatness through our commitment to welcome the stranger because God asks us to, because kindness is greatness, and because Abraham entered us into relationship with the Eternal when he welcomed strangers to his tent, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

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