Categories
Ethics Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Judaism and Immigration Reform

Judaism has something to say about Immigration Reform. And, it starts with Welcoming the Stranger, and Protecting the Weak.

Immigration Reform has been a hot issue, these past few months. A Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill has recently passed through the Senate, and the house is now debating what, if any, bill it might pass. What does Judaism have to offer this conversation?

Clearly, there isn’t a single “correct” Jewish position on Immigration Reform. That’s especially true when we’re talking about specific policies or legislation. Judaism doesn’t tell us precisely how long is too long for a path to citizenship to take. Judaism has little if anything to offer in helping us decide what percentage, precisely, of our money should we be spending on border security, as opposed to other aspects of Immigration policy.

But, Judaism does have quite a bit to say about values — which values should be important to us, and which values should undergird our society.

One of the values integral to Judaism is Hachnasot Orchim—welcoming the stranger. Welcoming the stranger has always been part of Judaism. In the Book of Genesis, we hear of Abraham, the first Jew, who was sitting in the entrance of his tent, when three strangers passed by. He immediately invited them in, and treated them like royalty — preparing a meal for them himself, not even letting his servants do it for him. That was probably fairly common and expected — we still see echoes of this kind of behavior in that part of the world. Our people inherited this tradition, and we built it into our theology.

You see, there is a natural, human tendency to favor those to whom we are the closest. We tend to take care of our own, and to be wary or afraid of “the other.” The mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is, in part, a counterbalance to this reflex. It reminds us that this person, whom I do not know is, among other things, a human being. And that means that they were created in the image of God. The moment I encounter him or her, I have an obligation to him or her. There is no one — not a single, solitary person — from whom I can completely turn away, and to whom I have no obligation.

These people — these immigrants — who are not, at least not yet, part of our nation are still people. And we have an obligation towards them. We have to welcome them.

We can’t welcome everyone equally, of course. No one is suggesting that we don’t have any Immigration policy — that we open our borders and make everyone and anyone a citizen. But, our starting place has to be one of care and welcoming. We have to work to figure out how we can bring the greatest number of people possible into our country, and into our lives, rather than starting from a place of rejection and isolationism.

It would be incredibly ironic for us, as Jews, to be less than welcoming when it comes to immigration policy. Because, we’ve often been the victim of it. We’ve been the victims of restrictions on our own migrations for centuries. We’ve fled persecution and been told, time and again, “you’re not welcome here.” Even when others were trying to wipe our people off the map, we’ve been told to go somewhere else. Just not here.

And, in less dramatic times, we still had to leave one home to seek a better life elsewhere. Very few of us in the Jewish community have an American heritage which goes back more than a few generations. We are a people of immigrants in a nation of immigrants. It is our repeated memory of being a stranger in a strange land which is supposed to drive our moral dedication to helping others to never feel like strangers themselves. Or, as it says in Leviticus (19:33-34), “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.”

Because we were strangers, we know how it feels. And so, we are commanded to help other strangers. We have an obligation to immigrants not in spite of the fact that they are strangers, but precisely because of it.

We also have to remember that many immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are among the most vulnerable in our society. And that’s another, perhaps even greater reason that we are obligated to help them. We are told over and over that we are obligated to protect the weak — the Bible commands us to protect the widow and the orphan, because those categories were the weakest, and the most vulnerable, in ancient society.

By contrast, “They’re not my problem” appears exactly never in our text.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the specifics of policy, discussions about “who should get in first” and rhetoric about amnesty and such that we can forget a very basic, fundamental fact: we’re talking about people here. Were talking about people — not “illegals,” but people — who are suffering. People who, perhaps because they came here illegally, are not afforded, or do not know about, the legal protections to which they are entitled. They are exploited and abused, with startling regularity and severity. Even if we hold them accountable for entering this country illegally, it should still shock our moral centers that human beings are treated in this way. Workers are abused physically, and are threatened with deportation should they utter any protest, or seek help. Children are left without their parents, often put in dubious foster care, because their parents were deported, while they weren’t. Husbands and wives are kept apart for years and years because the one who came here, legally or not, doesn’t have the right, or perhaps just the resources, to bring their loved one over. Young women are forced into slavery and the sex trade, because as far as society is concerned, they don’t even exist. It’s an abomination.

As I said, the policy issues are deeply, deeply complicated. And, no one policy, or set of policies, is going to solve all these problems. But, that simply doesn’t give us the right to lose our sense of empathy for people who are suffering. The fact that we can’t make the problem go away in no way diminishes our responsibility to make it better. We have to remember that behind every story, behind every argument, behind every policy debate live real people with real lives. And they’re in real pain.

That, more than anything else, drives my support of Immigration Reform. It is a belief that, flawed, imperfect and incomplete as it will inevitably be, it is a step in the direction of justice, and of mercy. It is a step in the direction of forging a society which more closely holds to the ideals and values set out in our tradition.

Your conscience will tell you how to act, when it comes to laws and policies. Judaism can’t tell you, and neither can I, which candidate to support, or which bill to protest. but, I urge you to do something. Call your Senator, or call your representative. Urge them to act. Urge them to act in a way which will make our country, and our society, a place which welcomes the stranger, protects the weak, and strives to be a shining example of our greatest ideals.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, Florida.  This is a version of the sermon he gave at Congregation Beth Am on Friday, July 19th.

Categories
Ethics General CCAR Immigration Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

What Matters to Us: Reflections from the Consultation on Conscience

The disconnect is striking.

“The Jewish vote,” we were told last year, is all about support for Israel.

But here I am at the Consultation on Conscience.  Israel is on the agenda, to be sure.   But it’s a crowded agenda.  And our friends in Washington seem to “get” that better than the pre-election press.

4347252961_4923cd8cd0_oThe Consultation’s keynote was a conversation between Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Ambassador Susan Rice.  They talked about Israel.  But they also struggled with Sudan and Syria.  They emphasized international LGBT human rights.

Senators and members of Congress of both parties are poised to talk with us Tuesday about immigration reform and economic fairness, the environment and international human rights.  And about Israel.

Danny Gordis claims that too few of us prioritize our own people.  He argues that our universalism, unique in Jewish history, harms our own people.  But the argument between universalism and particularism goes back to the Bible itself.  Ruth suggests that redemption can come from anywhere, even Moab. Ezra takes the opposite view. The best of our prophetic books, Isaiah, cries out for justice, seamlessly, for Israelite and foreigner alike.

So what energizes the crowd at the Consultation?

Judging by the applause, marriage equality is a critical concern, along with its near relative, LGBT employment non-discrimination.  For me, that’s personal:  my mom is a lesbian.  As a congregational rabbi, LGBT equality is a concern in our own Texas community, where our members can and do lose jobs because they are LGBT. But admittedly, these issues are universal.  My read of the prophets tells me to join Rabbi Jacobs and Ambassador Rice, concerned about persecution for LGBT folks worldwide, in countries with no Jews.

Immigration reform is high on our agenda, particularly for the rabbis at the Consultation who are leading Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  Some of our Jewish communities include immigrants whose status would be affected, but most are outside the Jewish community.  So perhaps we should be surprised that the polling data before us shows that American Jews photo-16overwhelmingly agree that a path to citizenship must be included in comprehensive immigration reform.  For me, and I’m not alone, this view is motivated by Torah:  We are commanded to remember the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt.  And my views on immigration are motivated by the American Jewish experience:  We Jews, better than some other Americans, recall our people’s immigrant experience and identify immigrants’ journeys with those of our own forbears.

But make no mistake:  Israel’s peace and security remains very much on the minds of Consultation attendees and our speakers.  We lauded Ambassador Rice on the partnership she and the administration have shared with Israel at the UN, facing adversity together, and she told us about Israeli strides at the UN that were news to many of us.

All of the above are concerns at the Consultation.  All are Jewish social justice priorities.  All are universally important, and all are particularly Jewish.

Rabbi Barry Block has been named Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, beginning July 1, 2013. Currently, Rabbi Block is on sabbatical as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served since 1992.