We read three simple words in the Torah that have tremendous weight — arami oved avi — my father was a fugitive Aramean. (Deuteronomy 26.5) We read it during the Passover seder and of course in the weekly Torah readings.
But I write of it today to remind us of our roots as being a landed people who were displaced. As part of a Jewish community, our master story of leaving Egypt and advancing towards the Promised Land depends on the memory of being a stranger. The TRUTH imbedded in the text is clear to me – it reminds us that at the heart of our people’s memory is an experience of homelessness, of being the stranger, of running away from oppression towards freedom:
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 Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O God, have given me.”
Two additional family memories stand out to me. I am told that my maternal grandmother made the journey from Lithuania before she was even a teenager. One of her experiences was hiding under the floor boards of her home during a pogrom (“riot) where Jewish communities were attacked.
The other memory was told by my mother. As a child, she remembers growing up in The Bronx, sending care packages of clothing and supplies to her mother’s family in Europe. Then, the packages stopped. No more were sent. My mother noticed the end to their family ritual and asked to do it again. She was given no answer about why they stopped…she was only told not to ask about it again. (My mother was a Jewish educator. Decades later, my grandmother picked up one of my mother’s books and it revealed the mystery of her hometown — it was leveled and turned into a Nazi uniform factory.)
My grandmother’s experience of becoming a citizen of the United States was one of the proudest moments of her life. She was grateful for the opportunities and security she was given in this amazing country. But I often wonder if she would be allowed entry under today’s rules. (The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has launched an interactive website that teaches some of the issues that new immigrants to America have to face. To see if your ancestor could have made it to America under today’s laws, visit http://www.entrydenied.org/landing_template.php?page_id=rac.)
I share all of this because I joined a number of rabbis here in Atlanta to meet with Senator Johnny Isakson and the State Director for Senator Saxby Chambliss to talk about the new bipartisan effort to advance Comprehensive Immigration Reform. We couldn’t have been more pleased to learn that they both wanted to support this effort in the Senate.
Everyone agrees that today’s immigration system is broken. Over 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the shadows of our communities across the country, making them vulnerable to mistreatment and fearful of working with law enforcement. Families face up to decades-long backlogs in acquiring visas. Workers are left without protections. Children are left behind as parents are deported. There is much, much more.
In the Senate, S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, was introduced in April 2013 by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), and co-sponsored by remaining members of the bipartisan “Gang of 8” Senators, including Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA). On May 21, it passed the Judiciary Committee with a vote of 13-5.
There is even hope when the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce is able to come together to advocate for this bill.
Practically every major faith-based group, from the Reform to Orthodox Jewish community, to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, and certainly our neighbors in the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations.
It is amazing to me to see how many of our Christian neighbors from a wide range of denominations use the very same source as we did to advocate for change:
“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.” — Leviticus 19:33-34
To learn more about the Reform Jewish movement’s position on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, click here. (There is a place where you can write directly to our Senators.)
This bill is not perfect, in fact, in my opinion it is far from great. But it is not an amnesty, it provides a real (albeit too lengthy) path towards citizenship, and a chance at family reunification for most. When there is real bipartisan support and a faith community that has come together, the time is ripe to get good legislation that is good for the business community, protects the rights of laborers, the concerns of those in the agriculture industry, and addresses significant issues relating to human dignity and human rights. I am pleased the faith community is so solidly behind this bill.
I know some of you might be asking why am I writing about this of all things? I think of my grandmother and her family. I hear the anger towards “illegals” and want to protect them. But friends, our politics and our faith perspectives should not be kept separate. Our politics is the testing ground for an authentic, mature faith.
I look forward to sharing more about this topic on Friday night, June 21, with other Reform and Conservative rabbis in Atlanta. I hope you will join me that evening at 6:30pm.