Immigration Sermon: Give Me Your Tired, Rabbi Esther Lederman

Rosh Hashana 5773

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

Give Me Your Tired

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-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the Golden door!'


So wrote Emma Lazarus, words made famous when they were affixed to the Statue of Liberty in 1903. Words that, dare I say aloud, that only a Jew could have written. I don’t say that to sound arrogant. I say that to remind ourselves – We are the world’s first immigrants. We are still immigrants today.

It is a story we cannot afford to forget. It is THE story of the Jewish people.

Many rabbis would choose to quote some text at this point. About how the Torah proves that our job as Jews is to fight for a fair immigration system, to address the issue of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. And I could give you some texts, about how we must not harm the stranger, because we were once the stranger. But I know you all know it, I know you’ve all heard it, because it’s the one commandment you’ve likely heard, over and over again at Micah. It’s also likely the one commandment, knowing the ways of Micah folks, that you most want to uphold. It’s what I love so much about Micah.

So I will not go to the text to prove my point. At least not to that (pointing at Torah) text.

I want to tell you a story instead. A story about one of our people. One you’ve never heard, but also one you’ve heard a hundred times.

This story is about Steven Foldes.1 He’s the father of a good friend.

His story is both unique, and as he reminded me, not unique.

His story is both yours and mine.

Steven was born in 1949 in Budapest, Hungary, to parents who had survived the war. Shortly after the Communist revolution, Steven’s parents decided they would leave. Not an easy decision but a necessary one. So in the cold winter of 1955, a truck came in the middle of the night to collect Steven and his family. They could only take a few possessions: some gold jewelry, photographs sewn into the insides of their clothing. At the Austrian border, the Hungarian police detained the family. Identity papers were searched. And some gold was passed as a bribe. As they fled over the mountains, helicopters overhead dropped flares to prevent people from leaving. 

Interview conducted by phone with Steven Foldes, August 29, 2012. Only seven years of age, Steven still remembers what it was like to run for cover from those flares, the chaos of the escape. In Vienna, they applied for a visa to the United States. Steven had an aunt living in Los Angeles. After a number of months, their passage was secured, and they boarded an old American troop carrier, which set sail for New York City. Lady Liberty was waiting.

They made it to Los Angeles and moved in with his aunt -- Steven, his father, his mother, grandfather, and even a nanny who had travelled with them. Steven went to school, where he spoke almost no English. His mother worked for a while in a factory, wrapping engines with wire coils. His father became something of a middleman for the Hungarian community in LA, helping them negotiate life in America. His grandfather, who had owned a haberdashery in Budapest, went to work as a janitor.

Steven was the first person in his family to go to college. He eventually earned a PHD in anthropology, and today devotes his days to improving the American health care system. He married, had children, became an active part of his Jewish community. He became a dedicated American citizen.

This story of Steven’s – It belongs to him, but it also belongs to all of us.

This is the story of Avraham, who left the home of his birth, so he could have the freedom to worship the One God. This is the story of Jacob and his sons who left their home in search of food. This is the story of Maimonides who escaped persecution at the hands of the Almohads. This is the story of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who came to these lands 3 to escape the death machine of the Nazis. This is the story of first Jewish immigrants to America, who came from Brazil, trying to find a place where they could escape persecution and find economic security.

We are the world’s first immigrants, the original stranger and alien. We are forgetting our story. We cannot afford to.

I sometimes wonder: If the Statue of Liberty were being erected today, What would it say? “Sorry. We’re all filled up. It’s too late for you. Only millionaires and refugees of communism need apply. We hear Canada is taking applications.”

Our immigration system is broken. We have 12 million undocumented people in our country. From Mexico, and El Salvador, and Guatemala -- who come across the border in a desperate search for a better life. From India and China, who come here on temporary work visas, but then are denied the ability to stay more permanently, despite their contributions to the American economy.

And then there are the children. The children who were brought here as children, who grow up here thinking America is their home, who know only this place, who discover they can’t afford to go to college, or get a driver’s license, or get a job.

And then there are the children who are born in this country, American citizens by birth, who are born to undocumented immigrants, who live under the threat that their parents will be deported. It is a broken system.

Something needs to be done to fix it.

And this month, it got even more personal.

Two weeks ago, we learned that my application for a green card was denied. Micah had agreed to sponsor me for permanent residency, something many places of employment due for valued workers. I was honored that Micah would do this. The reasoning behind the denial is too complicated to discuss here. Suffice it to say, the reason is bureaucratic and nonsensical.

If I can’t get in, then tell me, who can? Let me state the obvious. I’m a white, English speaking Canadian, I have a graduate degree, I’m with financial means, I’m a rabbi, and I have lawyers from one of the best law firms in this country, and I’m not wanted as a permanent resident. I understand deeply why people come to this country without the right papers. Because we make it so hard to let people in.

But I’m lucky. I have an American husband and a son. I can reapply for a green card, as the spouse of an American. But if I wasn’t married, I would likely have to leave the home and life I have built for myself.

Do not feel sorry for me. I share this with you so you can understand how hard it is to come to this country and do it legally. If you want to feel anything, feel angry, on behalf of all the hard-working immigrants who come to this place and help America thrive, and we thank them by calling them illegals. If you want to feel anything, feel angry, on behalf of the immigrant children who see America as their home, and all we see is children who might compete with our children for university admissions and jobs. Get angry for our broken immigration system, and then commit to doing something about it.

The system is broken.

Something needs to be done to fix it.

We may have to wait till after November, to deal with immigration on a national scale. But we can do something right now, right here, for immigrants in Maryland.

We have the power to make the Maryland Dream Act a reality.2

The Maryland Dream Act would allow undocumented immigrant kids, raised in Maryland, graduates of Maryland high schools, whose parents have paid state taxes for three years, to pay in-state tuition at Maryland state colleges and universities. The Maryland legislature did the right thing when they made this law in April of 2011. Unfortunately, opponents are determined to overturn the law, so the issue will be determined by popular vote this November.

The difference between paying in-state vs. out-of-state tuition is staggering. In-state tuition is close to $9000. Tuition for out of state students is over $27,000.

These undocumented students, referred to as DREAMERS, come from working-class families with limited incomes and almost no college savings. They are not eligible for federal loans and grants. Their families are not eligible to open educational savings accounts.

The DREAMERS are students like Jonathan Green.3 Born in Panama, Jonathan did well in school but his mother worried about his future. She knew the way the system worked in Panama. In order to succeed professionally, one needs connections, connections Jonathan’s family did not have. She wanted to him to go further than she and her husband ever could. Even though he was an excellent student, she knew he would eventually hit a ceiling he could not break. And she worried about what that would do to him.  So, in December 2005, Jonathan, 13 years of age, arrived with his parents and his siblings in the United States, on a tourist visa. Jonathan had an uncle in Silver Spring, a soldier about to deploy to Afghanistan. But while here, Jonathan’s parents made a decision that they wanted to remain in the US, permanently. His mother saw the opportunities that could be available to a child in America, a nation of immigrants, and she wanted what was best for her son.

Wanting to do this the proper way, but not having any financial resources to speak of, Jonathan’s family consulted a “lawyer” – one of those store fronts where an hour of free legal advice is advertised and anything beyond that is charged. After an hour with so-so advice, with no one to help them, with little proficiency in English, they proceeded to apply for permanent residency. And then they waited.

Their application was eventually denied. But by this time, Jonathan had enrolled as a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. The family was supposed to leave the country at that point. But they didn’t. They decided to stay and apply again. Jonathan’s mother became a cleaning lady; his father got temporary work in construction.

Jonathan was unaware that he was what we call “undocumented.” He had no idea what that meant for his life until he applied for college.

Jonathan had dreamed of going to college, and applied to seven. George Washington University was one of the last he heard from. It was the one he had prayed to get into. It was his top choice. The admissions letter on the computer screen said he had been accepted. Everyone was ecstatic – his family, friends, school counselor. They went out that night to celebrate with ice cream.

When Jonathan returned home that evening, he opened up the admissions packet and glanced at the section on financial aid. Jonathan had been awarded a scholarship of up to $20,000, but tuition was close to $50,000. He would need more money. So, he did what most students do – he began to fill out the paper work to apply for financial assistance from the federal government. He took it in the next day to his school counselor. She told him the danger that sending it in could do to him and his family, and that he was ineligible for funding as an undocumented student. With no financial resources to speak of, he declined his admission to GW and accepted the offer from Montgomery College, who were offering a full financial aid package.

Jonathan loved Montgomery College and graduated from there this spring, but he still wanted a BA. Again, he applied to a number of schools. University of Maryland College Park accepted him, his top choice. It also would have allowed him to remain living under his parents’ roof. But he still could not afford it. For Maryland’s policy is to charge undocumented students, even if they have graduated from a Maryland high school, and reside in the state, out of state tuition. That is a huge difference.

The Maryland DREAM Act could help students exactly like Jonathan, by leveling the playing field in economic terms.

If you live in Maryland, I am asking you to vote FOR on Question Four.

If you don’t live in Maryland, there are still things you can do:

Phone Bank at Micah this fall. Open your home to invite Maryland residents you know to come and learn about this central issue. Tell friends and family who live in Maryland why they should vote FOR FOUR. And bring friends to services on November 2nd to hear Jonathan tell you his story and what the Maryland Dream ACT could do for people like him. And ask yourself this: what has a college education meant to you and your family? Here is what it has meant for me:

When my father graduated from high school, in June 1945, he desperately wanted to go to university. All of his teachers had been college graduates. He knew that without a college education, he would not get very far from his family’s meager beginnings.

My father grew up poor, the youngest son of Eastern European immigrants, raised largely by a single mom after his father died suddenly. My father could not afford a college education. But he had heard that if you joined the US Army, the US Government would pay for a college degree. The gift of the GI Bill. So shortly after graduating from high school, my father borrowed 50 bucks from his brother, boarded a train headed to New York City, and took a room at the YMCA on West 34th Street. The next day, in suit and tie, he headed down to the draft board, to volunteer for the Army of the United States. They asked him a few questions: Are you a citizen? No, came his reply. How long have you been a resident? Nine months, came his reply. Next they asked him for his residency certificate, Oh sure, he replied, And began to look in earnest for this document, opening his wallet, reaching inside pockets, turning every which way, for only he knew the truth. No such document existed. Oh gee, he said, I must have left it at home. I’ll go back and get it, as he turned to leave. Don’t bother, said the man at the draft board, as he slid the paperwork over for my father to sign.

A week later, my father received his draft papers, and reported for basic training at Fort Dix, in NJ, a soldier in the US Army. After about a year in the military, learning to jump out of airplanes, he was released. The war in Pacific was officially over and all draftees were let go. Lucky for my dad, he had earned 36 months of tuition assistance, and had managed to survive those airplane jumps. He returned to Canada and proceeded to earn his BA.4

I wouldn’t be here today if my father had not been able to go to college. A college education can mean everything to a person, and their children and their children’s children. The ladders of opportunity we have used to get where we are today – do we really want to pull them up after us?

Our ancestors, the Israelites, used to engage in a ritual of the First-Fruits. Every year after entering the land, we were to take some of the first fruits, and give them as an offering to God, and say: “I declare today to the Eternal that I have come to the land the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us.”

As Nehama Leibowitz points out in her classic commentary:

“The Israelite farmer ...does not say: ‘My fathers came to the land which the Lord swore to give them.’ Rather he proclaims in every generation... ‘I am come to the Land.’”5 I am come to the land, we say. Not our parents. I am come to the land, we say. Not our grandparents. I am come to the land, we say. Not our ancestors.

The time has come to declare again, The time has come to remember our story and say, “I am come to the land.” Lady Liberty welcome us home again.

1: Interview conducted by phone with Steven Foldes, August 29, 2012

2: For more information about the Maryland Dream Act, please visit

3: Interview conducted with Jonathan Green by telephone, September 11, 2012

4: Interview conduced with Robert Lederman in person, September 2, 2012.

5: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim/Deuteronomy, p. 260.