Immigration Sermon: From Stranger to Neighbor, Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit

From Stranger to Neighbor By Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit on April 26, 2013

After thousands of miles of an arduous journey and close enough to the border of the United States that they could see the lights of a major American city they were turned back. Denied entry. The dreams and the hopes of America - the land of opportunity - was at their fingertips, but they were unable to enter. They yearned for America, the land of freedom, the land of immigrants, a beacon of hope for all those distressed. However, once they were discovered they were stalked by the American authorities, unable to enter the land they aspired to live in. The travelers - fleeing uncertainty and terror at home -- didn’t have the proper papers.

Many of us know this story - the year was 1939 - the American city was Miami - the ship was the St. Louis. After being denied entry to Cuba, the Captain - Gustav Schroder a non-Jewish German - appealed to the American government and President Roosevelt for safe passage in the United States. At one point, Schroder even considered running aground along the Atlantic coast to allow the refugees to escape. However, the ship was shadowed by the US Coast Guard and a grounding was impossible. Denied permission to land in the United States, with over 900 Jewish German Refugees on board, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Many of those who were returned to ultimately perished in the Holocaust.

But this isn’t a sermon about Holocaust remembrance. What, I hope it is, is an opportunity to recall one of the guiding principles of Jewish life; the Jewish code that has served as the moral compass of our people from the minute we crossed the Red Sea fleeing Egyptians chariots until today. The words of Exodus 13: “In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally went out from Egypt.”

Earlier this week, along with a few other Beth Am congregants I attended the Consultation on Conscience, the biennial conference put on by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington DC. We spent this past Tuesday on Capitol Hill - meeting with and hearing from different representatives from across the country and across the aisle. What will likely come as no surprise to you, one of the main topics at the conference was comprehensive immigration reform.

We Jews have a unique relationship with the idea of immigration. We recognize that we are an immigrant people, connected to our flight from Egypt, when we fled oppression and slavery and wandered 40 years to the promised land to Israel - a land flowing with Milk and Honey. The ancient name of our people “The Hebrews” - ivri - means to traverse or to cross over. The first Jew, Abraham was called Avram ha-ivri, because he was a border crosser.

Today our Jewish community speaks scores of languages and includes native born Americans and foreign born Jews. 5th generation Americans as well as Jews from former Soviet States, from Argentina and Morocco, South Africa and Iran, Ethiopia, Australia and Israel. Our ancestors fled the Pogroms of Russia and the camps of Europe, we escaped persecution in Arab lands and have fled other oppressive regimes and anti-Semitism. We have arrived in America, when other countries, bounded by discriminatory quotas and draconian immigration policies closed their borders to those in need.

In fact, today is a significant day in American Jewish Immigration History. It was exactly 358 years ago today, that the first Jewish immigrants to North America came as refugees. My friend, Rabbi Asher Knight of Dallas, Texas writes: “In 1654, 23 Jewish men, women and children fled from the former the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil after the Portuguese re-captured Brazil and introduced the Inquisition. The Jewish experience with the Inquisition had been terrible: persecution, forced conversion, torture, expulsion. These were reasons enough for the Jews to flee.

Their journey was not easy. While sailing toward Jamaica – their ship was overrun by a Spanish privateer who stripped the Jews of all of their possessions. Homeless, penniless, with nowhere to turn– the Jewish party landed in New Amsterdam – hoping that the Dutch Colony would be welcoming.”

Even though the New Amsterdam’s governor, Peter Stuyvesant appealed to have these 23 Jews expelled from the new land. (As a note my Mother was born in Stuyvesant Town - on the East Side of Manhattan) The Dutch West India Company responded on April 26, 1655, exactly 358 years ago today. They ordered Stuyvesant to allow the Jews to remain in New Amsterdam. And despite Stuyvesant’s clear anti-Jewish sentiments, he ultimately complied. This set the stage for the building of Jewish communities in North America.

In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally went out from Egypt. The call to this generation is now. Immigration Reform is one of the pressing issues of this time and our community has an obligation to be a part of conversation. It is the merging of both our Jewish tradition with the highest of American ideas that we espouse. The mitzvah of caring for the stranger is greater than most any other commandment. The Torah discusses protection of the stranger no less than 36 times. We know well the words of the Polish Jewish immigrant Emma Lazarus that welcome us to New York Harbor. At the foot of The Statue of Liberty - across from Ellis Island that welcomed hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants to America - her poem reads:

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

With these words in mind, it is imperative that Jewish Americans speak out with regard to the moral dimension of public immigration policy and lend an active hand to organizations committed to welcoming the stranger and aiding the immigrant. Modern day undocumented immigrants living in San Jose came to America for the same reason that our ancestors crossed the Atlantic 100 years ago. The stories of Haitians and Mexicans and Filipinos today are the stories of our Czech, German and Polish ancestors. Senator Lindsay Graham - a man I rarely agree with - spoke to our group in DC earlier this week and said: "America's an idea nobody owns - let's allow people to become part of it!"

I’m thrilled that this Sunday at 4:00 pm Beth Am is hosting a program on Immigration Reform. The program is called: “From Stranger to Neighbor” in which we will be exploring immigration reform locally, nationally and Jewishly. We’ll explore Jewish texts on immigration, we'll hear from experts on statewide and national immigration reform policy, and we'll hear Beth Am members sharing their personal immigration stories. We'll also hear from some of our own neighbors - including the story of Jose Arreola, an immigration advocate, and an undocumented Immigrant who graduated a few years ago from Mountain View High School.

Not only our synagogue, but our movement is out front on the issue of Immigration Reform via a coalition of Jews called Reform CA. Reform CA is ensuring fair and comprehensive immigration reform through a public policy perspective. Reform CA, is talking with our representatives in Sacramento and organizing lobbying days - to ensure passage of the Trust Act - which will assist undocumented Immigrants during some of their most vulnerable periods. This is a movement each of us can be a part of - through lobbying, lettering writing, and joining Reform CA in Sacramento. We do this not only as concerned citizens - but deeply rooted in Jewish tradition - standing on the shoulders of the commandment - from Leviticus Chapter 19 which reads: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

One of the best speakers of the Conference was Rabbi Sharon Brous, who discussed the first two questions asked in the Torah. The first question from Genesis 3 where God asks Adam “Ayekah” - where are you? And of course the question is rhetorical, because an omnipotent God knows exactly where we are physically. So the questions takes on an introspective component - Ayekah - where are you spiritually? Where is your core?

The second question occurs exactly one chapter later during the story of Cain and Able. God in Chapter 4 asks Cain - “Ay hevel achicha?” Where is your brother? And once again an all knowing, God knows exactly what happened to Able. So this question, like the first, takes on a different meaning: Do you know your brother’s story? Do you know your sister’s story? Are you, your brother’s keeper? Are you your sister’s keeper?

These are the two questions that begin our most sacred text and on this Shabbat, this sacred time for rest, reflection and family, let them be a constant beacon for us. Let us use these questions as a north star to help guide us through one of the most significant questions facing our nation today. Where are our brothers? Where are we?

Shabbat Shalom