Yom Kippur 5779 – Immigration

The bus pulled into the long driveway, as the children peered out the windows covered with rain.  As the bus rolled to a stop, the somewhat, dilapidated, large white house came into view.  A man entered the bus and barked instructions to the children ranging from ages 8-12.

The children got off the bus, with the rain, falling more steadily now, and stood in puddles of mud.  Another adult stood in front of the children dressed in shorts and t-shirt and divided the children into 4 groups.  Four more adults appeared and shepherded the youth into the white building—instructing them to sit on the hard wood benches in front of the long tables and wait for lunch to be served.  Some of the adults spoke with an accent the children couldn’t understand. Index cards were passed out, and the children scribbled down their names and home towns.  They were reassured that after lunch they would be taken to the dark brown cabins they would call home for the next two weeks.  Bowls were passed out.  Lunch arrived…split pea soup and bread.  Welcome to my first day of my first year, at Olin Sang Union Institute Camp in 1966.

For those who may recall, simulations were popular teaching tools back in the 60s.  The inclement weather provided the perfect setting for the campers’ introduction to the session’s educational theme:  Immigration.  Chilled, a bit wet, eating a green soup our mothers never would have served us—the simulation experience gave each camper an entrée into the immigration process many of our relatives experienced when arriving in America.  Suffice it to say, that more than a half century later, I remember the first day of my first year at sleep away camp.

For the next two weeks we learned about Ellis Island, early German immigration, Russian roots—the American Melting Pot as we were taught.  It would only be many years later that I realized, America is much more a thick stew than a melting pot—each immigrant group contributing its unique culture, language and food to the American mosaic.

My mother’s family emigrated after the Kishinev pogroms. My father’s family’s journey to America was a bit, more sketchy, as the family hailed from the Austria-Hungary region—an always shifting border.  A large Hirsch family came to America, but, like many immigrants, not all remained.  Some relatives, unhappy with America, returned home before World War I, and were killed during the Shoah.  Take a moment and think back upon your family’s journey—what prompted their often, perilous crossing of the Atlantic?  Persecution?  Opportunity? Starvation? Crime? As we know, America is a country built upon the shoulders and backs of immigrants.  All of us, who had family arrive on America’s shores in the 19th and early 20th centuries could resonate with Hamilton’s and Lafayette’s aside in the hit Broadway show, Hamilton, when they commiserated–“Immigrants, we get the job done.”

As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah Eve, Jewish peddlers—mostly immigrants, crisscrossed America, setting up shops in every small town.  Many German Jews who settled in America decades before those who emigrated from Russia. Those Jews who arrived during the first wave of Immigration in the middle of the 19th century were welcomed on America’s shores. Those who came from Germany or central Europe were educated, spoke multiple languages, could easily blend into the melting pot of American culture.  For many German Jews, their Eastern European cousins—who dressed and looked different—who spoke a language not recognized by the non-Jewish Western Europeans, they were an embarrassment.  Often, these new immigrants were encouraged, even forced to settle outside of the large Eastern urban cities—in outposts like Galveston, Milwaukee and Chicago.

In the mid-19th century there was no real immigration quota, as those Jews from Central Europe were welcomed.  “Between 1881 and 1890, only 3.7 percent of all immigrants to the United States were Jews. But, by the first decade of the twentieth century, Jewish immigration from Russia skyrocketed, and Jews constituted more than 10 percent of all immigrants, and by 1920, 23 percent of the world’s Jews lived in the United States. Two million Jews had arrived from eastern Europe alone by 1924. (Office of the Historian)

During the height of Eastern European immigration, after World War I, America began to question the viability of America’s Jewish newcomers.   Two immigration pieces of legislation were passed in 1921 and 1924.  The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins’ quota. “The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census.” (Office of the Historian) If you do the math, there were, only  111,000 Jewish immigrants from Russia in 1890.  If the 1924 quote was based on this number it would have fixed the number of Jewish immigrants at 2220.   If that percentage had been fixed in 1914, the total number of Jews who would have been allowed entry would have been under 25,000 and not the million plus that flooded our golden shores.

What fueled the fire for a crackdown on immigration in 1921 and 1924? Why did suspicions mount?  “In the early part of the 20th century Eugenics emerged as a popular and ‘scientific’ discipline which focused on, the selection of desired characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically in reference to humans.”  (Eugenics Genetics, Phillip K. Wilson, Encyclopedia Britannica)

One of the more popular books on Eugenics was Madison’s Grants 1916 work, The Passing of a Great Race.  He posited older immigrants (those who originated from central Europe in the mid-19th century), were skilled, thrifty, hardworking like ‘native born’ Americans, and recent immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe were unskilled, ignorant, predominantly Catholic or Jewish, and not easily assimilated into American culture. (American Anthropological Society, 5.27.08)

What accounts for the change in America’s immigration policy?  Following World War I, the United States gained status as a world power. Encyclopedia Britannica states:  “A concomitant fear arose that if the healthy stock of the American people became diluted with socially undesirable traits, the country’s political and economic strength would begin to crumble.”

If this sounds like familiar rhetoric, you are correct…Hitler relied on Eugenics in espousing his Master Race platform.  You may protest and suggest Grant was a madman—who would listen to his racist rant?  Truth be told, Madison Grant was one of the ‘expert advisors’ on the threat of “inferior stock” from Eastern and Southern Europe, playing a critical role as Congress debated the Immigration Act of 1924. The act attempted to control the number of “unfit” individuals entering the country by lowering the number of immigrants allowed….” (American Anthropological Society 5.27.08)

For those of us, including myself, who descended from Eastern European ancestry, the phrase ‘inferior stock’ does resonate positively in our inner core. Racial purity was also a goal, as Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 codified the “one-drop rule” as the standard racial classification for people of mixed ancestry. A person with even “one drop” of non-white ancestry was classified as “colored” or non-white.”  (American Anthropology, ibid.)  Just imagine how population data would have been different if Ancestry.Com had existed 100 years ago.

Throughout much of 20th century, the United States kept a careful watch on immigration.  Fear of the stranger, economic depressions, job insecurity all fueled resistance to welcoming the huddled masses onto our shores.  But 1965 saw a reversal of previous policy.  “The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, abolished the earlier quota system based on national origin and established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. (U.S. Immigration since 1965, March 5, 2010, History.com.)

In 2018, we live in a heightened climate of suspicion and fear of immigrants—legal and illegal. In part, this is due to the number of refugees seeking asylum, scarcity of jobs, and a world riddled by terrorism.  According to Brookings, Caucasians will be a minority in the United States in less than 30 years (Brookings March 14, 2018, William H Frey).

There is general agreement amongst lawmakers, that immigration policies be reviewed, and immigration reform is necessary. The political schism rests in an immigration reform process, the criteria and the timeline.  American citizens and government officials hold polar opposite positions on, the 11 million plus illegal immigrants in our borders and deportation.  Those supporting the current government’s stringent immigration and deportation policies detail the following arguments:

  • Immigration laws must be enforced. Law cannot be ignored.
  • The path to citizenship must be transparent and work within the law.
  • Illegal immigrants hurt those from their country seeking legal entry
  • A nation without borders is not a nation.
  • Immigrants pose an economic burden
  • Terrorist threats can only be prevented by securing borders and limiting legal and illegal immigration. (ProCon. 2/28/17)

Those opposing the current government policies argue:

  • America is a country built upon immigrant populations.
  • State and local taxes paid by immigrants equals $11.64 billion per year.
  • America must provide sanctuary to those seeking asylum and refugee status
  • Immigrants have carved out unique industries in our country: In NY, just consider the fruit markets and nail salons started by Asian immigrants.
  • Regarding terrorism, those who marched in Charlottesville were not immigrants. Home grown terrorism is palpable in our country with 1606 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, the majority of these heinous crimes, not committed by illegal immigrants. (The Atlantic, Uri Freedman, 2/15/19 The U.S. Fights Terrorism—But Not School Shootings)

And when a crime, even murder is committed by an illegal immigrant it must not become the launch pad for instilling fear of all immigrants.  Our hearts go out to the family of Mollie Tibbets who was murdered by Christian Rivera, an undocumented and illegal immigrant from Mexico.  It was a horrific crime and our hearts go out to her family.  Her death became the poster child for those who want to halt all immigration and deport all illegal immigrants.  Molie’s father condemned those Mollie’s death to be a political tool to foment greater prejucice and bigotry.  In an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, Molie’s father wrote, “I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”

Indeed, Immigration Reform is a difficult topic, one that demands both din v’rachmanut–justice and compassion.  Both sides of this behemoth issue have important points to consider. What though does Judaism teach us?  What lens does Jewish values provide? What direction can we glean from our Jewish tradition and Jewish texts? What, if any, if our congregation’s response?

Throughout Jewish history, Jews rarely had a warm welcome as they fled persecution and starvation.  One did not see signs reading, Jews Welcome here.  It is no surprise that Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, The Great Colossus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty in 1903, was such a beacon of hope.  “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!”  One must note, no one suggested removing those iconic words of welcome when Grant and the Eugenics Movement made ‘scientific’ claim that ‘the wretched refuse’ was indeed ‘inferior stock.’

Our Passover Hagaddah teaches us, Arami Oved Avi—often translated as ‘my father was a wandering Aramean’.  However, the critical word here is oved—the literal meaning of oved is, to destroy. The text would then read, ‘An Aramean destroys my father’.  R. Zalman Sorotzkin, a 20th century Lithuanian rabbi suggests, that the Aramean was Laban, Jacob’s uncle.   “Laban was always trying to destroy Jacob and even today, the forces that he represents are still seeking the destruction of B’nai Israel.” –(Sefer HaShir vehaShevach)

A Laban, Amalek, and Hitler, has risen in every generation to extinguish Jews, long before there was a Middle East Crisis.  How easy it would have been for Jews to view the stranger with suspicion and fear.  Our peoples’ mantra could have been without hesitation, Hilel’s phrase, ‘Im ein ani li mi li—if I am not for myself who will be?’  And yet, Jewish texts command us to embrace the stranger.   “The commandment to care for the stranger is mentioned more times than any other commandment in the Torah — even more than the command to love God. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the Great noted that “the Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the stranger” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M’tzia 59b). (The Commandment to Help and Love the Stranger, Reuven Firestone, Reform Judaism).  And just, tonight,  as the cantor finished the haunting, imploring words of Kol Nidre, the words spoken after the final LA SH’VUOT, before the Sifrei Torah were returned to the Aron Hakodesh-were, “V’nislach l’chol-adat b’nai Yisrael, v’lager hagar b’tocham, ki l’chol haam bish’gagah. All shall be forgiven—the entire community of Israel, and the stranger who lives in their midst—for all have gone astray in error.” The Jew and the stranger are equals.

Passover, the going out of Egypt is the quintessential, identifying moment in Jewish History.  Without it there would have been no Sinai. Our forebears knew slavery and oppression and were gifted with freedom God commands Moses to take a census after the Exodus, not before the hurried departure. There was no criterion to determine who was worthy of redemption.  Imagine how much easier it would have been for Moses, if Korach and his rebels, or the 10 nay-saying scouts, were prevented from participating in the Exodus from Egypt.  After all, they were troublemakers.  They made life hell for Moses and for God.  The same could be said of those who eventually would build the Golden Calf.  And yet, Yitziat Mitraim—going from Egypt—going mi’meytzar—going forth from a narrow space of oppression, was a package deal. All of the Israelites left, the strong, the weak, the infirmed, the rebellious, the children—no one was left behind—all were included.  And we are their descendants.

The essential message from the Hagaddah is the verse, Indeed the Mishnaic passage, “In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.”(Pesachim 10:5) Maimonides’ interpretation of this verse is:  “Instead of the reflexive verb lirot et atzmo, signifying an inner experience, Maimonides substitutes the verb, l’harot et atzmo, to demonstrate, ‘to behave in a manner manifesting the experience of finding liberty after having been enslaved for a long time.’  “In every generation, a person is obligated to show him or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.”  (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik , (Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesach and the Haggadah) (Rambam, Hilkhot Chamez u’matzah 7:6)

The formula is clear:  Jews who have been wanderers for centuries—Jews who have known oppression and persecution—Jews who know the feelings of being the stranger–Jews commanded no less than 35 times to welcome and even love the stranger—Jews must stand up, and like the Gates of Life on this Yom Kippur Day, we must open the gates of safety and security to those refugees who flee oppression, persecution, torture and death.

The Reform Movement has been outspoken on immigration reform for decades.  In 1995 it passed a resolution that stated, “we support those efforts that compassionately seek to regulate and to aid newcomers to this land, but we oppose those that will unduly restrict immigration or burden the lives of illegal immigrants.”

If we subscribe to the opinion that all immigrants, whether asylum seekers, children, women fleeing abduction and rape, must abide by due American process and follow the legal entry requirements, then we must affirm that the United States was correct in refusing the entry of the St. Louis in 1939, and should carry no guilt for sending the ship back to Europe.  Ashrei…how fortunate, in 1939 that England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium opened their borders to receive those tempest-tost passengers.  Of the 900 passengers on the St. Louis, 250 ultimately, were killed by the Nazis.  If immigration laws cannot be bent, especially when the quota number has been slashed, then we must applaud the British in Palestine who killed illegal Jewish immigrants going to Palestine during the British Mandate.

The debate regarding immigration, quotas, asylum-seekers will go on, as it has b’chol dor va’dor—in every generation. Let us be clear, the current administration didn’t create the problem, though it has given voice to those opposed to immigration.  Steven A. Camarota wrote in March, “There are two primary reasons why immigration has become so controversial:  First, lax enforcement and subsequently large populations of  illegal immigrants.   (The Case Against Immigration:  Center for Immigration Studies, 3/28/18.)

But, there is one action in recent months, for which Judaism has zero tolerance: The separation of parents from children at the Mexican border.  It was an act of inhumanity.  Take a moment and think back to a time when you were separated from a loved one, particularly a child—on the street, in a store, on the beach—and you didn’t know where they were for a minute, 10 minutes and hour.  Tap that feeling of momentary panic in the pit of your stomach, until you caught sight of him again.  I cannot imagine what parents and children at the Mexican border experienced this past summer: Men and women who risked everything to find a better life.  The cries and tears of toddlers, not in a camp simulation, who couldn’t understand the words of border authorities.  The conditions, the lack of supplies, the lack of a clear government plan, co-mingled to create a nightmare from which these children will not awake, as the emotional damage is irreparable.   I do understand policy is policy, but if no one would have agreed to carry it out, what would have happened?  If border guards, members of the State Department and administration, if ICE agents, truly believed the policy was a correct one and the only option, I may disagree with them, but they acted out of personal conviction as well as direct orders.  But, if these same people knew what they were doing was cold-hearted and merciless– If they merely yielded to a higher authority, serving as cruel pawns– it is a Shanda.

Many of us can recall the ‘Obedience Experiment’ conducted by Yale Professor, Stanley Milgrom in 1963.  It was the ultimate authority simulation game, where ordinary people, were told by an authority figure to inflict electric shock pain on another group of people, and those ordinary people yielded to the authoritarian power ‘commanding’ them to do so. These ordinary, good people believed—the control group’s screams made it real, they were providing increasing doses of electric shocks—watching the needle cross to the danger zone, even to the point of death. The Milgrom Experiment teaches us how good people lose rational thought when ordered by an authority figure.   Perhaps, the same can be said for border guards imposing zero-tolerance and zero-humanity.  Their unemotional dispatching of orders, tearing crying infants from a parent, gave me insight, into how Nazi officers did their job during the day and went home at night to a dinner and kissed their children before going to bed.

Therefore, it is no surprise, that as our current administration slammed the doors of immigration and imposed a zero-tolerance policy, 26 Jewish organizations across the religious denominational spectrum, this past June, raised their collective voice, ‘condemning policy that separated children from migrant parents.”

The letter, which was organized by the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the zero tolerance policy “unconscionable.” The letter in part read: “This policy undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people.  As Jews, we understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression. We believe that the United States is a nation of immigrants and how we treat the stranger reflects on the moral values and ideals of this nation.”

Perhaps, what has been most perplexing, most enraging, is that the architect of the current immigration policy is Stephen Miller, whose own Jewish family escaped annihilation by emigrating to the United States more than 100 years ago.  His own uncle called him a hypocrite.  No one, though, pointed a more accusatory finger than Miller’s childhood rabbi, Neil Comes-Daniels, who on Rosh Hashanah said from the pulpit: “Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate people…. I can assure you, as I can assure them,” he said, “that what I taught [Miller] is a Judaism that cherishes, wisdom, values … wide horizons and an even wider embrace … [Separating families] is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.” (Times of Israel, Sept. 12, 2018)

So, as a Jewish community, where do we go from here?  What is our response?  Last month I informed our temple board of my intention to speak on Immigration this morning.  The board then voted in favor of our congregation making Immigration a VT issue for the coming year.  I’ve met with our social action chair, Nelly Szlachter to discuss a possible, strategy.  Together with the social action committee we plan to target specific Immigration issues that our congregation can help remedy.  Friends, the immigration issue is a very broad and complex one.  Indeed, there are some of us today, who sit on different sides of the immigration aisle. My hope is we can identify one, two or three areas where everyone will feel comfortable in welcoming the strangers in our midst.  Do we partner with the Sanctuary Movement or HIAS and work with Asylum seekers?  Do we focus on Mexican legal and/or illegal immigrants?  DO we sign onto the Reform Movement’s Brit Olam—World Covenant group, focusing our attention on immigration.  What about DACA?  What is our bandwidth as a congregation?  Are we policy or program focused?  These are all critical issues that require your input and your help.  We will be creating a list serve for those interested in helping.  There will be a link in the upcoming E-Blast Obviously, there are some skill sets that would be helpful:  Legal expertise and Spanish or Arab-speaking to name two, and we welcome all those willing to volunteer.

Toward the end of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites were poised to cross over and settle the land, they are commanded, “Don’t turn in a slave to their master, when they flee to you from their master. Let them dwell with you in your midst, in the place they choose in one of your gates as suits them; don’t oppress them” (Deuteronomy 23:16)  Torah does not only command us to welcome and love the stranger, but it condemns the nations of Ammon and Moav—nations that did not show welcome or compassion, when the Israelites were refuges from Egypt.

America’s strength rests in its diversity, it’s religious and ethnic pluralism.  Indeed, we need to find a path to immigration Reform that is fair and equitable to all.  The can for Immigration Reform has been kicked down the road for too many decades.  And, The Statue of Liberty still stands as that beacon of respite, safety and welcome.   No one has changed Emma Lazarus’ inscription to say, ”Go back, you are not welcome here.”  May freedom and refuge be America’s DNA in the years ahead.  Keyn Yehi Ratzon.