Know the Heart of the Stranger
Shalom! I'm back blogging after a post-holiday break to travel to California. I'm very excited to share about my trip, but first feel it's important to post about a couple of national and world issues that I find reflected in this week's and last week's Torah portion.
I'll start with this week, Parashat Lech Lecha. HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), has invited congregations around the country to mark a Refugee Shabbat, and PCS will be among them. As we read the Torah portion about how our earliest ancestor was a Hebrew, literally one who crossed over "from someplace else," it's a good time to recall the Torah's preoccupation with the well-being of the stranger and refugee.
We also remember the long Jewish history of being immigrants and sometimes outcasts, including at our darkest hour of the Holocaust, when even good countries like the USA turned away Jewish Refugees from the Nazis. Today there are some 65 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide, and our country could do so much more to alleviate their plight, but in fact we are going the opposite direction and raising the barriers. On Yom Kippur we heard from Evan Kingsley about our local organization, PART One, through which members of our PCS community and of B'nei Yisrael in Armonk, are helping to resettle refugee families. The families include individuals who helped the United States during wars abroad in their own countries and now seek safety with us.
On the broader subject of immigration, last night I participated with several other local rabbis in offering a prayer at a vigil on the steps of Congregation Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco. A couple of hundred people had gathered to light candles, speak up, and pray for the return home of Armando Rojas, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in the USA for 30 years and worked as custodian of the synagogue for much of that. Armando is not a refugee and he did come into the USA without documentation, as an 18 year old leaving a dangerous environment where family members had been murdered. After 30 years as an exemplary member of the community, with a wife and two sons who are American citizens, he has suddenly been separated from his family and faces permanent deportation. (Read more details in a letter from Rabbi Aaron Brusso).
It's true that Armando long ago violated U.S. immigration law by coming here as he did. But since then he has lived an admirable life as a kind, responsible, and contributing member of the community. In Judaism we have two concepts: Din and Hessed. Din means that you adhere only to the strict letter of the law, while Hessed means that humanity and compassion play a part. Recently, the Din of immigration law was also tempered by the Hessed of an individual's circumstances, and hard working, peaceful, contributing people like Armando were not a priority for deportation. It feels so cruel to the family of this gentle person to have to face permanent separation from their husband and father. To me it is part of a disturbing trend of nativism, that is coming just at a time when there are so many people in the world who need a home.
As a Jew, when I see any ethnic group or nationality being targeted with words and harsh policies lacking in Hessed, I know that I have to care, because the Torah reminds us (36 times) to know the heart of the stranger/immigrant/refugee or to love and care for them, because we were in that person in the Land of Egypt. Not to mention that a society where nativism and xenophobia prevail is not a healthy one for the Jewish community.
That's why I have emphasized the issues of refugees and immigrants in so many sermons and Tikkun Olam projects. In this case it is very personal and comes close to home. If you want to support Bet Torah, follow the link I provided above to their rabbi's letter to the community.
1/11/2019 09:57:17 am
Update: Despite all these efforts, Armando was summarily deported from the US last fall after a brief hearing. But since then a higher court ruling has enabled him to return home and have a full amnesty hearing in the future. He has been able to be with his family again and meet a grandchild for the first time.
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Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.