Rosh HaShanah Morning, 5774
Temple Sinai, Reno, NV
Abraham, the founding patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was an immigrant. The man who first entered a covenant with the One God, and whose merit we invoke every time we pray, because we are his descendants. Thus we read on every Passover night: “Arami Oved Avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deuteronomy) According to the Rashbam, the Aramean is Abraham. In Genesis, the Eternal says to Abram, “Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) When Abram moves and enters the covenant, he becomes Abraham. It is scary and difficult to move and takes great faith and courage, so much so that when he does, God adds a hey like the hey of Yud Heh Vav Hey to Abram’s name, adding holiness and promise. As Jews, we take pride in our immigrant roots. There is holiness and strength in the immigrant experience and being descended from them.
When Abram Strizhevsky, my wife Nadya’s grandfather moved from the Former Soviet Union to the USA, he left behind all that he knew in order to provide his family and grand-daughter Nadya with a better life. Abram had been an aerial photographer for the Soviet Union in WWII. He and his wife Miriam, a PhD in economics in Moscow, had cousins in NY who could vouch for them, granting them access to the US. Lucky for me, the family was able to move here and I had the chance to meet their grand-daughter Nadya, who is now my wife.
But it wasn’t just luck that allowed Nadya and her family the opportunity to emigrate and immediately become US citizens in an era when immigration to the US was highly monitored and difficult. The way the American Jewish community united and organized around the Free Soviet Jewry Movement demonstrates better than any other cause in recent history, the power of the organized Jewish community to effect real change.
The earliest stirrings of an organized response in the United States to the plight of Soviet Jews began with a small demonstration of Jewish students in New York in 1962, and soon both grass-roots and mainstream organizations were created to lobby for this issue. By the mid-1960s the two dominant strands of the movement included the more conservative, mainstream, Israel-identified organizations and the anti-establishment grassroots organizations that espoused emigrants’ rights to move to the United States and other countries besides Israel. A new tradition developed at our Passover seders of an empty chair reserved for the Soviet Jew who was not allowed to leave the USSR. Annual rallies that began in the 1960s as Solidarity Day drew hundreds of thousands of people in New York and Washington DC by the early 1980s.
One of the most tangible wins of the Free Soviet Jewry Movement was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, signed into law by President Ford in January 1975. The amendment tied commercial credit and Most Favored Nation trade status to any non-market, i.e. Communist economy that allowed unimpeded emigration. It was a brilliant bill because it tied an important economic incentive—the cost of trade and Nixon’s and Brezhnev’s shared desire for American exports—to Congress’s strong human rights agenda at the time, as well as Members of Congress seeking the support of their Jewish constituents. As such, the movement organizations became powerful players in both American domestic politics and foreign affairs.
Our community successfully lobbied the US government to let the Jews out of the Former Soviet Union. The US effectively threatened to cut off agricultural trade with the Soviet Union if the country did not let the Jewish people go.
The Soviet Jewry Movement that took root in the United States in the mid-1960s resulted from several factors. It was, of course, a product of its era, a time of many movements seeking justice and human rights, particularly the civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements. Many of us heard speeches on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington just last week, recalling to mind, no doubt, the ethos of that era. But it was also a direct response to lingering anguish over the Holocaust. American Jews were still tormented by the belief that they had been too passive and too assimilated during the 1930s and 1940s, and had not done enough to prevent the annihilation of six million European Jews. The cry of “Never Again!” resonated across the broad spectrum of American Jewry.
As a community, we demonstrated our power. What is power? Very simply, it is the ability to act, the ability to get something done. By the time President Reagan met with Gorbachev to finalize the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, Reagan basically said, “you don’t have a choice. You have to do this.” And Gorbachev did. He let our people go.
The final win of the Free Soviet Jewry movement was only 25 years ago, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of you in this room more than likely participated in some way. If you were involved in some way: if you called or wrote a letter to your representatives, if you showed up at a rally or championed the cause in some way, please raise your hand. This we accomplished on behalf of fellow Jews. What does Jewish tradition have to say about how we as Jews should understand immigrants in general, including non-Jews?
Leviticus commands, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am Adonai your God.” [19:33-34]. The word for stranger in Hebrew is ‘ger.’ In the Torah portion we read this morning, Hagar, literally “the stranger” in Hebrew, the mother of Abraham’s first child, Ishmael, is cast out of Abraham and Sarah’s home. Abraham is hesitant to cast out his first-born son. But then God says, ‘let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah says too you, heed her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called to you.” Still, I have always been uncomfortable with our ancestors having cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Indeed, the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs in the Book of Genesis, are full of as many positive examples and role models as with negative examples of what Not to do. What we needed to do for the sake of Jewish lineage came at the expense of keeping the first Jewish family together. According to both Jewish and Muslim tradition, Ishmael’s line becomes the great nations of Islam, and Isaac’s the Jewish people. Perhaps one could say that we are still suffering the consequences of this initial act of casting out the Stranger. Let’s not make the same mistake in our current country. To really treat the stranger as ourself, we have to take a stand about Comprehensive Immigration Reform as emphatically as we did with the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. So why now?
Many of us step into a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to affirm that I am a Jew. This is my tradition, my tradition has something to teach me and I have something unique to contribute for having been born a Jew and/or choosing to live out Jewish values. On Rosh Hashanah, we take stock of how far we have come and how we have missed the mark during the past year as a people as well as individuals. We are a reflective people. We believe that having one foot firmly rooted in our past strengthens us to evolve and create a more promising present. If you’re here partially to affirm your Jewishness, how are going to act in the world as a Jew? What does it mean to be Jewish this year in America in 5774? Immigration Reform, with 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country is a vital part of our moment and this year in the history of this country. Does everyone remember the Boston Bombing? An act of terrorism carried out by young American immigrants who were citizens? Part of the discourse in the wake of that atrocious event was well, what is life like for immigrants in America? How easy or hard do we make it as a society? That was a specific case, but part of the lesson for me from that attack was, “how much assimilationist pressure do our children put on kids who are different? Our country is strong when we are open and flexible and allow for genuine diversity and equality among all our peoples. At our best, we are a multi-cultural country, not a force for killing the cultural identities of folks that reach our shores. And now, I think, we need to extend that ethic of fearless and courageous openness to undocumented immigrants. Just as we will continue to run marathons, we ought to continue to extend the great American ethic of inclusion to those who live in fear as strangers within our land. The ethic to treat the stranger with the same respect we treat one another is mentioned 35 times in Torah—more often than any other biblical commandment. So when people ask you if Immigration Reform is a Jewish issue, what will you tell them?
The urgency for immigration reform is practical as well: 11 million illegal immigrants means 11 million people not yet paying taxes on the crucial ways in which they contribute to our economy. It means 11 million people who are too afraid to seek out law enforcement when they need to: and can be easily blackmailed with the threat of deportation. Even within a family, when domestic abuse arises and the victim thinks she has no recourse to go the police. As the laws stand, our government all too often is in the business of tearing families apart when one spouse is legal and one is not, or children are citizens and parents are not. The truth is our immigration laws are backward, overly restrictive and amoral. If the immigration laws on our books today were in place 100 years ago, when most of our Eastern European ancestors immigrated to this country, 94% of our ancestors would have been turned away.
However, I am not going to stand here and tell you exactly what to believe. That wouldn’t work anyway: As the expression goes, two Jews, three opinions. But I am here to say that as a Jewish American or as an American Jew, you do not have the right to stand in the sidelines of this debate. You do not have that luxury. As a Jew or person motivated by Jewish values, each of us has to take a stand in one direction or another on this issue and make our voices heard. Education and job creation and child hunger are other issues we hope to address this year, both through ACTIONN, our local, broad-based, inter-faith community organizing coalition, and through our own projects as a community. If immigration is not your main thing, then take up one of these causes and make your voice heard within our coalition through ACTIONN. And call your congressman, Mark Amodei.
What would it look like to muster the same level of political will in our community on behalf of people who are not Jewish, as we did for Soviet Jews? We, whose family histories overfill with stories of persecution, unfair economic hardship and immigration? And as American Jews who are commanded to live in such a way as to demonstrate that we were strangers once too, that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and now are free.
The difference between merely considering yourself as having been a slave liberated to freedom versus actively demonstrating, behaving in the world as though one had personally been liberated is enormous and exactly what I am calling on you to do. When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel’s experience of having narrowly escaped the Holocaust of our people in Europe—was that not fresh on his mind? Did he not personally understand and take to heart the commandment to act in the world as if I, personally, have been liberated from Egypt? Can we even imagine how that experience would affect us to stand up for the oppressed in our midst? This is the paradigm-shift we need to make to do everything in our power to make Comprehensive Immigration Reform a reality in this country.
I might add Comprehensive Immigration Reform tops the list of the national Reform Movement’s advocacy priorities this year as well. For those of you who didn’t know, each of the almost 900 Reform-afffiliated Congregations across N America are represented by the Religious Action Center in DC. The RAC is the lobbying arm of the Reform Movement. They are already lobbying hard for this issue, and in Temple Sinai’s name as one of many Reform Congregations nation-wide. But local advocacy, in coalition with interfaith partners through ACTION Nevada goes a long way—and far beyond what any one office can accomplish in closed door meetings in DC.
Here are three things you can do to exercise your power on this important issue:
- Call Congressman Amodei’s office personally and daily. 888-979-7506 (repeat)
- Show up for a prayer vigil for Immigration Reform in front of Amodei’s Reno office in coalition with our interfaith partners. ACTIONN is holding these prayer vigils every Friday from 12- 1 outside his district office until Immigration Reform is passed. His address is 5310 Kietzke Lane. Let’s show Amodei that this is not just a human rights issue, an economic issue and a national security issue, but is also an important Jewish issue.
- Finally, for those who want to do more, find Pat Fling, the Director of ACTIONN after this service and attend a training to become part of the Temple Sinai Leadership Team of ACTIONN. We will be hosting the Spring Leadership training here at Tempe Sinai at the end of April. If you want to get a head start, there is room for Temple Sinai pioneers to attend the Fall Leadership Training Institute which is this Saturday. Go to www.actionn.org for details.
When Sarah and Abraham threw out Hagar and Ishmael, the negative repercussions were intense. Our tradition teaches in Pirkei Avot that “the sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” Yet Abraham and Sarah were also the great welcomers, whose tent was always open to wanderers in the desert. Abraham was also the first human rights advocate, protesting God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah for the sake of the innocent in their midst. Most undocumented immigrants are innocent, their only crime being seeking out a better life. Let us, in this High Holy Day Season, and throughout 5774, do what we do best and speak truth to power on behalf of the most marginalized in our midst. May we continue this timeless tradition of our people that began with Abraham. Shana tova u’metukah. Make you each be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
[God] said to Abram, “Know now that your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years. (Genesis 15:13)
You shall then recite as follows before your Eternal God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-8)
Eight Teachings from the Torah on Immigrants
- You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)
- You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
- You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:10)
- When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
- You too must befriend (love) the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.. (Deuteronomy 10:19) 6. You shall not abhor an Edomite, for such is your kin. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land. (Deuteronomy 23:8)
- You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that your Eternal God redeemed you there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
- Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And all the people shall say, Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:19)
Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 (and from the Haggadah)
In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.
Rambam, Hilkhot Chamez u’matzah 7:6
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
The standard text reads, “In each generation, one is duty-bound lirot et atzmo, to consider himself, as if he had been delivered from Egyptian bondage.” 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. If this was truly our consciousness—and for some of us it can be—we would do everything in our power to speak up for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.