From Stranger to Neighbor – Rosh Hashanah Day 2

There once was a poor man with a wife and three children who managed to put enough food on the table by bootlegging.  He illegally supplied alcohol to the people of his village without paying the appropriate taxes to the government.  When the authorities found out, they were not happy.  He was arrested.  He – and his family – knew that his crime was punishable by years in prison or worse – conscription in the army.  So, his family scraped together enough money for him to post bail and he promptly disappeared. Instead of facing the charges against him, he made his way to the US, where he started a new life.

It took a number of years, but eventually he was able to bring his wife and three children to America to join him.  They added a fourth child upon their reunion in this country.  Although neither of the parents had attended anything beyond grade school, two of their four children attended college and graduate school.  The other two married college graduates.  Although they didn’t live to see it, all of their grandchildren attended college.  I know this because I am one of those grandchildren.

My father was the baby born here in this country after the escape from Poland.  If he were born today under those circumstances, he’d be called an anchor baby.  Back then, he was simply called an American.

I tell this story not because it is unique.  My hunch is that just about every American Jewish family has an immigration story to tell. I tell this story because we cannot have an honest conversation about immigration today without first considering the Jewish American immigration experience.

In the year 1800, there were only about 2,000 Jews in this country.  Today, there are approximately 5 million.  That’s not natural growth.  That’s the result of wave after wave of immigration.  In fact, the influx of European Jews in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – over 2 million Jews came to this country over approximately four decades – contributed to some of the most restrictive American immigration laws ever passed.

Just think about that for a second.  The arrival of all these Jews coming to this country to escape persecution in places like Russia and Romania contributed to American citizens establishing organizations like the Immigration Restriction League. The IRL advocated for immigration reform.  This reform arrived and it was called the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 passed the Senate by a vote of 78-1.  We know that the quotas established in 1921 and strengthened by the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 were instrumental in preventing Jews from escaping Europe and coming to this country after the rise of the Nazis.

While the word “Jew” is never mentioned in these acts, the 1924 law in particular targeted Southern and Eastern Europeans.  With the onset of the Great Depression, there was no chance that these laws would be softened or repealed.  People were too nervous about the impact of immigration on the economy.  Besides, the country had plenty of other problems to deal with.

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because you have read a newspaper recently.  Obviously, the dates have changed.  The names of the organizations are now Federation for American Immigration Reform or the American Immigration Control Foundation instead of the Immigration Restriction League.  And instead of targeting Jews, the convenient targets today are Latinos.  But as Ecclesiastes says:  “Ein Hadash Tahat Ha-Shamesh – there is nothing new under the sun.”  This is the same old story.

While one might think that our own immigration experiences would be sufficient to convince us as Jews to support less restrictive immigration policies, our commitment to proper treatment of newcomers goes back way further than the 1920’s or even the 1880’s.  We only need to look to the Book of Leviticus to hear the Bible’s view on this issue:  “You shall have one standard for ger (stranger/newcomer) and ezrah (citizen) alike: for I am Adonai your God (Leviticus 24:22).”  In other words, we can’t have one set of laws for people fortunate enough to be born here and another set for those who came here later in life.

For example, there has been talk of changing the law so that a child born in the United States to undocumented parents would no longer be considered a citizen.  This would be a drastic change.  Two babies could be born in the same hospital at the same time and yet one would be a citizen and one would not.  That is a double standard for a newcomer which our tradition rejects.  The Bible has two names for the people we call immigrants: Ger / גר which means stranger or alien.  This term ultimately came to mean someone who took upon himself/herself the obligations of being a part of the community (i.e., a convert).  The second name is Ger Toshav / גר תושב which means a resident alien or someone who lives among us without trying to become a part of the community.  I think that this distinction is important.  We often talk about the obligations of our country to immigrants, but our tradition recognizes that immigrants have obligations as well.

The Talmud teaches: “If a person resides in a town 30 days, he becomes responsible for contributing to the soup kitchen;  three months, to the charity box; six months, to the clothing fund; nine months, to the burial fund; and twelve months, for contributing to the repair of the town walls (BT Bava Batra 8a).”  In today’s parlance, we’d say that they have to pay taxes.  They have to contribute to society.

Unfortunately, the way our system works today, undocumented immigrants are afraid to pay taxes because it would lead to their deportation.  They want to stay as far “under the radar” or “off the grid” as possible.  In an essay entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas describes his frustration.

His mother sent him away from his native Philippines to the US in order to live with his grandparents (who were here legally) when he was 12 years old.  She could not get out herself and remains there.  He had no idea that he was illegal or undocumented until he tried to get his driver’s permit a few years later. It was a devastating revelation.

Somehow, his grandfather had gotten him a social security card which was stamped with the words: “Valid for work only with I.N.S. authorization.”  They whited out those words and he used that social security card to get jobs and, yes, pay taxes.  He needed to work in order to eat and be self-sufficient.  His grandfather would not be around to support him forever, and in fact, his grandfather has since passed away.

He kept thinking that if he took on the responsibilities of being a regular American, eventually he would get the chance to be one.  But it doesn’t work that way.  There is no mechanism in our system that deals with individuals who are brought to this country as children and then try to do the right thing.  And despite being an award-winning journalist who speaks perfect American English and contributes to our society, there is no guarantee that Vargas will be able to stay.  It is only that Social Security card that has kept his case open.

The Jewish tradition is clear – if you meet your obligations to your new community, then you can stay.  We judge a person based on his or her contributions to the community – not the means by which they arrived in town.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand that we must have laws and rules and processes.  We need to have certain security protocols in place.  However, we should be talking about making it easier for people to get here – and not harder.  After all, shouldn’t others get to experience the blessings of this land just as our immigrant ancestors did?

Maimonides a man who had to flee his homeland of Spain due to the persecution of Jews – took this a step further.  In his code of Jewish Law – the Mishneh Torah – written toward the end of the 12th Century – Maimonides wrote the following:  “The love of the stranger who has entered beneath the wings of the Divine presence is enjoined by two Biblical commandments: One because he is considered to be within the category of “reyim” or friends, and one because he is a “ger” or stranger (The Laws of Behavior 6:4).”  This is really a rather remarkable teaching.

Maimonides understood then – as we understand now – that people basically fall into two categories: those who see immigrants as others and those who see immigrants as fellow human beings.  Maimonides said that it doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum.  If you think that they are somehow fundamentally different than us, then for you the Bible says “Love the Stranger.”  If you think that immigrants are just like us with different languages and customs, then for you the Bible says “Love your neighbor.”

Either way, the bottom line according to Maimonides is “Love the immigrant.”

It is with these principles in mind that our congregation is participating in the MetroWest program to help settle Darfuri refugees right here in New Jersey.  Between bureaucratic red tape and the uprisings in Northern Africa, it has been difficult to bring these refugees over.  However, once they get here, our community will be providing apartments plus donated clothing, furniture, home furnishings, and food.  We will also be providing job training and English classes until they can be self-sufficient.  With that kind of support, it won’t be long before they are.

Now I know that in today’s economy, we might be tempted to say that they will be taking jobs from people who are already here.  But, the truth is, they will ending up taking jobs that people here don’t want or won’t take.

For example, if – after giving this sermon – the congregation decided that I should no longer be the rabbi of the congregation, I would certainly need another job in order to support my family.  Would I consider mowing lawns, busing tables or cleaning houses?  Probably not.  There is nothing wrong with those jobs, but I would want to find a position that would utilize my specialized training.

The truth is that this country has always relied upon the most recent arrivals to do certain jobs which usually require hard work and confer low status.  New immigrants take those jobs – with pride! –  in the hopes that their children won’t have to, and then a new wave of immigrants comes to take their places.

Most of the people screaming loudly about restricting immigration don’t want those jobs either.  Their objections are not really economic in nature; they are an expression of fear.  Fear of people who look different than we do, who have different customs, who speak different languages.

It is with that in mind that the Summit Interfaith Council is beginning a year-long program called “Stranger to Neighbor.”  All the houses of worship in Summit will be invited to participate.  We are doing this program under the auspices of the Interfaith Youth Core – a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching young religious people about other faiths and bringing them together to do community service projects.

We will kick off this project at our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service – when we will be hearing from two alumni of the program – one Jewish and one Christian – who formed their own non-profit together to work with Muslim immigrants.

Also, through the One Community One Book program, we will be reading the book “Acts of Faith,” which is the story of Eboo Patel – an American originally fromIndia– who eventually founded the Interfaith Youth Core.

Then, on MLK day in January, which has become an important day on our community’s calendar, there will be an opportunity for our young people to get involved in the Interfaith Youth Core through a one-day training session.

These are exciting opportunities for us to re-consider the way that we view people who are seemingly different than we are.

The truth is that the American Jewish community is a community of immigrants – it’s just a question of how long it’s been since our families have arrived.  We know that many of our Jewish brothers and sisters could have been saved from the horrors of World War II if American immigration policies had been less restrictive.  We know that immigrants to this country often do the jobs that we ourselves do not want to do and they do them proudly.

Our tradition is clear: we are obligated to treat strangers kindly – in part because they are strangers and we know what is like to be a stranger and in part because they are our fellow human beings regardless of their origin.

So, as we welcome in this new year of 5772, let us support legislation that would make life better for immigrants and would make it easier for good, hard-working people to come to this country.  Let us look at the immigrants who are already here in our community and view them with compassion.  Let us commit to participating in programs that might give us the opportunity to see that despite our many differences, we have much in common with our neighbors from different countries and different faiths.

 

L’shanah Tovah,

RAF.

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About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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