Kol Nidrei (Erev Yom Kippur) 5777

Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada

Shana tova, and welcome once again to Temple Sinai – it’s wonderful to see all of you here for Kol Nidre this evening.

Many of you know our active and beloved Temple member Judy Schumer. You may have also heard the story of how Judy moved with her parents from Shanghai, China to the US in the wake of the Holocaust. Her parents fled from Nazi-occupied Lithuania and made their way to Japan with the help of Sugihara, Japan’s ambassador to Lithuania, who had issued 6,000 visas to Jews for passage to Japanese territories. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, when it became evident that the Jews were being murdered, the world closed its doors. So many could have been saved if America, Canada, Australia had let Jews in, but no one wanted “those” people. Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Judy’s parents and sister tried to get visas to leave Japan but no countries would take them. They ended up in Shanghai where they spent the war but when it ended they had nowhere to go. Aspiring to move to America, they began to speak some English to the very young Judy, along with their native Yiddish. But in order to come into the United States Judy’s family had to have a sponsor, and it couldn’t be a Jewish organization: it had to be a private citizen who would personally guarantee that they wouldn’t become a burden to the United States. Finally, more than two and a half years after the end of the war, Judy’s family was allowed to enter the US. They received help from the Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which were also the organizations that petitioned American Jews to sponsor Jewish refugees so that they could get visas. Judy’s family was sponsored by the Klein family of New York, which sponsored about 40 families to come to America from DP camps in Europe and Shanghai.   

Some of you may also have heard that Reno has recently become part of a historic effort to resettle as many as 100 refugee families in the coming months. World War II once prompted the largest displacement of human beings the world had ever seen—but today’s refugee crisis has recently surpassed that unprecedented scale.

Many of the families coming to Reno have faced very drawn-out experiences of war and displacement. Most are from the Congo and from Syria, two desperately-hit war-torn areas. Like Judy’s family, who may have surprised you if you were expecting refugees from China, many of the so-called Congolese refugees are actually from Rwanda, having fled the horrific Rwandan genocide that left over 6 million dead in the mid-90s. Before arriving in the Congo, many of them lived in Sudan, which makes the U.S. the fourth country on their extended and traumatic journey for survival. And like Judy’s family, nearly all of the refugee families assigned to Reno include very young children, some of whom have known nothing of security or freedom or life without devastating fear.

I don’t know about you, but it has been overwhelming for me to hear about the news of Assad targeting his own people and seeing images of refugee families desperately piling onto flimsy rafts in a last-ditch effort to leave their war-ravaged countries and start a new life in the West. In the words of Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Forced displacement has now reached a level unprecedented since the founding of the United Nations; substantially over 60 million people are now uprooted around the world. Each day another refugee tragedy is played out in the media; of children, mothers and fathers losing their lives in a desperate bid to escape violence… Divisive political rhetoric on asylum and migration issues, and disturbing levels of xenophobia are threatening the international agreements which protect those forced to flee war or persecution.”

Most of the international laws and declarations meant to protect refugees were established in the wake of the Second World War. Who were the primary refugees then? Jews.

When the UN first adopted the International Declaration of Human Rights, one of its authors, the Jewish scholar Rafael Lemkin, insisted that it be rooted in language of the Jewish experience. He wanted the specificity of the racialized violence against the Jews to be contained within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the UN decided on standardizing the lessons of the Holocaust without reference to the specificity of the Nazi genocide in its preamble. The very idea of universal human rights arose out of the ashes of the Holocaust, while its Jewish origins became deemphasized. Today, the Jewish community needs to champion human rights and the protection of refugees, remembering the Jewish experience from which such values arose. We need to make these commitments central to what we mean when we say, “Never Again.”

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes the cycle of disenfranchisement that our people experienced leading up to the Holocaust and her observations are sadly relevant for our contemporary situation. She writes: “The first loss… was the loss of their homes, and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born, and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world… The second loss… was the loss of government protection… The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed, but that nobody wants even to oppress them… Even the Nazis started their extermination of the Jews by first depriving them of all legal status… and cutting them off from the world of the living by herding them into ghettos and concentration camps; and before they set the gas chambers into motion, they had carefully tested the ground and found out to their satisfaction that no country would claim these people. The point is that a condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged.” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 293-296)

Even when there is no centralized oppressor as was the case in Nazi Germany, war inherently takes away people’s rights, making them susceptible to violence that is physical and emotional, and which can last much longer than the war itself. The 75 refugee families expected to arrive in Reno between this October and next September are all escaping the devastations of war and they have been selected by the U.S. as being among the most vulnerable 1% of refugees in the world. Many of them have been on a journey of escape for over a decade.

All of us here today are in a position not only to empathize because of Jewish history, but also to do something about it. We have the opportunity to help one single refugee family, to put a face on a global problem, and to do a little bit locally to contribute to this overwhelming condition of refugee suffering—the largest crisis since the Second World War. Here in Reno, the Northern Nevada International Center is acting as the NGO for federal dollars toward refugee resettlement and it has put out a call to local congregations to co-sponsor a family with them. Many congregations have already committed to doing so: The LDS Church was first to sign up, followed by Sparks Christian Fellowship, and Trinity Episcopal Church. The Northern Nevada Muslim center, the Northern Nevada Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Catholic charities have already signed on. Temple Sinai has the opportunity to be next by “adopting” one refugee family.

Before getting into the details of what this would mean, I want to talk about how lucky we are that we have a non-political, local way to help a problem that is so insidious and so far away that it can be near-impossible to know how we could ever make a difference. A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their home country because of war, persecution or natural disaster. To be legally accepted in the U.S. as a refugee means, in the case of those coming to Reno, that you have endured an 18 to 24-month vetting process. For refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the process is especially long. In most cases, there is limited information on the individuals because they include women and children with low profiles. For almost all of them, the core and overwhelming motivation is desperately to set up life in a country where one does not constantly need to fear for one’s life. In most cases, these refugees have undergone immense trauma. And many of them are not coming directly from Syria but from the countries hosting the largest number of refugees: Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon.

Showing love to the most vulnerable in society and to the stranger is not only mandated by our history. The Torah does not mince words when it comes to this commandment. Caring for the stranger is commanded more times than any other mitzvah in the Torah—more even than the commandment to love God (v’ahavta). According to the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer says that “the Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the stranger.” (Bava M’tzia 59b) This decree is articulated in a number of ways:

“You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20)

“The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens … for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)

“For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing food and clothing — you too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

In all of these, the Torah expects the collective experience of the Jewish people to sensitize us to the plight of foreigners and refugees in our midst.

In tomorrow’s Haftarah portion, we will hear Isaiah the Prophet admonish us, and his words ring as true for us now as on the day they were written. The haftarah reads: “They say, ‘Why do we fast, and You do not see it? We afflict ourselves, and You do not know it?’ Because even on this fast day you think only of desire, while oppressing all who work for you. Because your fasting is filled with strife, and with callous fist you strike. No, your fasting this day will not lift up your voice before heaven. Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast—a day worthy of the favor of Adonai? Is not this the fast I desire? To break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to take the homeless into your home, and never to neglect your own flesh and blood… If you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the suffering—then shall your light shine through the darkness, and your night become as bright as noon…” (Isa. 58)

Co-sponsoring a refugee family gives us the opportunity as a community to follow so many of our core values, as articulated by the Prophet of the Yom Kippur haftarah: To clothe and feed orphans of war and violence. To offer our compassion to the oppressed and satisfy those who suffered most terribly. To help house and educate and to help in a way that aligns with the highest form of tzedakah in our tradition, which according to Maimonides is supporting people to become self-sufficient. In the words of Carina Black, the Director of the N. Nevada International Center: “The US refugee resettlement system emphasizes self-sufficiency through employment and most refugees are employed. In fact, refugee men are employed at higher rates than their US born peers: 67% to 60%. At the same time, economic studies show that immigrants including refugees have an overall positive effect on the income of native born workers and fuel the nation’s economic growth.” Refugees, for obvious reasons, are some of the most self-directed, motivated and reliable workers. Refugees coming to Reno will be completely self-sufficient in an average of 2-3 months.

Sponsoring a family as a congregation means helping them do just that. Here are the specifics: We are not responsible for the basic arrangements and appointments of their care. The International Center finds housing, usually apartments, for the families. They make initial doctor’s appointments as needed, figure out their food stamp allotment, make connections with employment agencies and set up ESL classes. The sponsoring congregation is responsible for supplemental help above these basics. By raising $1000 we could provide starter furniture for the family in their new home; by donating $500 we could provide personal items and groceries to a family of four for one month. $150 would provide blankets and comforters for a family during the winter months. Before they learn to drive or get licensed to drive, we could arrange rides as needed for doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping. Volunteers among our members could occasionally invite the family to dinner in their homes, and could provide extra connections for medical care, education and employment. Our members could also donate to help the family with initial costs of settling in and education. We would be an immediate community of support for the family to help get them on their feet on their journey to self-sufficiency.

Jeff Gingold and Jane Townley have already generously offered to coordinate our community’s sponsorship efforts. Another ten or more members have also expressed interest in helping out. That is more than enough to commit our congregation to the responsibility of co-sponsorship. Before the board votes next week about whether we can use the Temple Sinai name to officially sponsor a refugee family as a congregation, we will hold two community forums to discuss the specifics and the underlying Jewish values of this project, and hear any concerns from members. I want to invite all of you, our members, to attend one of these forums, either this Thursday evening at 6:30pm or this Sunday at noon in our newly constructed sukkah. Carinna Black from the International Center has agreed to join us for the Sunday meeting. These forums will be opportunities for learning and for sharing perspectives. Input from these forums will be most helpful to the board in determining the level of support for this effort so I personally hope that you can all attend one. If you know you’d like to help in some way, you can also add your name to the sign-up list near the entry-way after services.  

In rare cases, God as Creator intervenes to stop oppression. In most cases, it is us human beings who are tasked with doing the Godly work of welcoming and helping the stranger. Remember that the commandment to love the stranger is in the Torah more often than the commandment to love God; this teaches us that helping fellow human beings in need is our primary work in this world.

May we never forget our Prophet Isaiah’s words, the universal lessons of our history and the biblical commandment to take care of the stranger, the orphan and the widow, society’s most vulnerable, and to love them, as we, ourselves were vulnerable strangers in Egypt. And so, may we be worthy of being sealed in the Book of Life. Shana tova v’gmar chatima tova!