We Were Strangers, Too: Yom Kippur Sermon on Immigration Reform

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A few years ago, while celebrating Shabbat with our preschool students, I was teaching the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger.  Thinking that I was encouraging the young children to be kind to a new student, I asked them, what do you think the Torah tells us to do when we meet a stranger? …  “Don’t talk to them!”  “Find a grown-up you know!” “Don’t take candy!”

The children had been well-prepared for stranger-danger, as four-year olds should be.  The students’ response, appropriate for young children, highlights a heightened sense of caution present for adults as well.  Natural fear of that which is strange to us has a tendency to become so magnified that we are at risk of losing sight of our values.

Each of the two sacred texts we read this afternoon brings a perspective to our relationship with the stranger.

In the Book of Jonah, God dispatches the prophet and charges him: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it.”  God is instructing Jonah to get involved.  Jonah’s response?  He wants nothing to do with the people of Nineveh, so he flees.   Then later, when Jonah does arrive at Nineveh to find the people of the city atoning for their sins, and Jonah learns that God plans to forgive them, Jonah is grieved.

Why does Jonah attempt to escape from his obligation to get involved?  And why does he show grief, in their repentance? The people of Nineveh are separate from Jonah and their destiny has nothing to do with his own.  For Jonah, the world is black and white.  Self — other.  Ally — enemy.  Friend — stranger.  Closed off, Jonah refuses to participate in the redemption of another people. The Jonah story warns us that our fear, mistrust and distance of the other can obstruct the Jewish values we cherish.

And what are those values?  Just moments ago, in our last Torah reading of the Days of Awe, we read from the Holiness Code. There, Torah teaches:  “When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them.  The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself– v’ahavta lo kamocha– for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Eternal One am your God.”  Leviticus makes a bold statement: The purpose of our people’s story of slavery and liberation, is to uncover our empathy for the stranger who lives in degradation, desperate for dignity.  We have been there.  We were strangers, too.

Each of us experiences fear of the unknown.  The question our Yom Kippur text brings to us as, we reflect on who we are, and the values we embrace, is:  Do we, like Jonah, allow fear to separate us, to say “That’s the other.  That’s the stranger.”  Or do we hear Leviticus:  “I am the other.  I am the stranger.  I am the foreigner.  I am the immigrant.”

“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!”

Emma Lazurus’ words, engraved on the Statue of Liberty, tell the story of some of my immigrant ancestors, perhaps yours as well.

My own great-grandfather, my namesake Jacob, emigrated from the Ukraine in the early 1900’s.  Escaping the anti-Semitism of the pogroms, and imminent conscription into the Russian Army–a military term lasting at least 25 years for Jewish boys– Jacob saved for a ticket to America. Jacob left behind his wife Judith, with a plan to work for two years, and then send her the money to come join him.  Sure enough, two years later, the money arrived.  But Judith worried that if she boarded that boat, she would never see her sister, Gussie, again.  So, with complete faith in Jacob’s love for her, and his dedication to bringing her to America, Judith sent her sister on the boat, with a message that Jacob should work for two more years, to send another ticket to Judith.  Two years later, Judith joined Jacob in America, and they built a life together.

As hard and long as they needed to work to realize their American dream, Jacob and Judith did not encounter legal barriers upon entry to America.  Had my great-grandparents arrived at Ellis Island under today’s laws, it is unlikely they would have been permitted to enter.  Today’s region-based quotas mean that only a few thousand of the 2 million Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe between 1900 and 1924 would have entries approved now.

In our Jewish collective memory we know the longing to leave hardship, to persevere, and to pursue a better life.  Since the time of my family’s immigration, our nation, fueled by fear, has been closing the gates.  Today, immigrants to the US face a dysfunctional system of unfair policies.

11 million undocumented immigrants are at risk of family separation, deportation and employment exploitation.  Teen-agers who were brought here as young children face barriers to enrollment at school, a driver’s license–basic elements in finding a job and building a career.

Our laws keep loved ones apart and force people to live hidden in darkness.  Of course government requires regulation, but if the law strikes you as tragic, if it consistently breaks your heart, then something in our nation’s system is wrong.

One wife and mother named Laurie, is living the nightmare of a family torn apart by our broken immigration system.  Laurie’s husband was just a boy when he came to the United States. As a young adult, he began the immigration process.  Laurie and her husband, unsure of the exact date he arrived as a child, and unclear about how to complete the forms, turned to an immigration organization, who gave them bad advice.  After Laurie and her husband completed the forms incorrectly, according to the instructions they received, he was deported to Mexico.  When officials found that the forms were incorrect, the director of the immigration organization who provided false information was arrested. But the system is so dysfunctional that the punitive policy to ban her husband for 10 years from re-entry into the U.S., still holds. Laurie and her husband have 3 young children, who have not seen their father in 4 years. Because of the violence in Mexico and the regular therapy for one of their children who has special needs, the family does not plan to move to Mexico with him.  This 10-year ban, meant to punish the undocumented immigrant, clearly punishes the children most of all.

Organizations across the American Jewish community, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society have galvanized in advocacy for comprehensive, fair immigration reform.  Our Jewish Federation’s Coalition on Immigration Reform has established principles fueled by Torah’s mandate to embrace the stranger as a citizen.  These principles include: a path to citizenship, reduced waiting time for reuniting families, restoration of due process and humane border policy.

In June, the U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill– imperfect, but the most comprehensive in recent years.  The bill includes a pathway to citizenship, family reunification, agricultural concerns, extreme border control and it addresses asylum seekers–the kind of act that benefitted Soviet Jews in the 1980’s.

The House of Representatives is rejecting the comprehensive bill, focusing only on border control.  And the attention of the Congress–now focused on the important questions about Syria’s atrocities, which we discussed in this afternoon’s Study Session—the attention of Congress will be even more difficult to capture.

Jewish history and Jewish values provide a unique voice to our nation’s broken immigration system.  At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, please go to our website, and click to the blog.  In a post called, “We Were Strangers, Too,” we will offer advocacy resource information, and an opportunity to share your family’s immigration story.  Let’s all share with our representatives, the collection of family stories we create.  And maybe our stories will shed new light on our nation’s responsibility to bring people out of the shadows.

This Yom Kippur, may we hear the mandate of our Torah reading from Leviticus:   “When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them.  The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself– v’ahavta lo kamocha– for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Eternal One am your God.”   The purpose of the entire Exodus story, repeated throughout the year and on Yom Kippur, is to uncover our empathy for the other—to uplift the stranger from degradation to dignity.  We have been there.  We were strangers, too.

I am the other.  I am the stranger.  I am the foreigner.  I am the immigrant.”  May our hearts open in empathy and our lips move into action as we understand, why we were strangers, too.  Amen.