When Zacil finished speaking, I could see they eyes of four hundred fellow rabbis welled up with tears. This undocumented immigrant courageously described living in her shadowland of America, a parallel country to the land of opportunity discovered by my great-grandparents, a land ruled by the principle that–regardless of high school graduation or a university degree–the highest aspiration of person without papers was living in perpetual fear while toiling tirelessly as landscaper or maid. When Rabbi David Saperstein rose to speak following her standing ovation, he simply stated, “There are eleven million Zacil’s living today in America.” And so immediately, beginning with over 250 rabbis sending a simple text message to become part of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, our Central Conference committed ourselves to work for comprehensive, humane and common sense Immigration Reform.
I helped form Rabbis Organizing Rabbis to move the work of tzedek back to the center of my rabbinate, to the center of the Reform Rabbinate. I knew I wanted to work closely with colleagues on sustained campaigns to bring greater justice to our world; I sensed so many colleagues shared a commitment to tikkun olam that we were just waiting for the moment to act together and reclaim our Reform Movement’s mantle as leaders in repairing our world. But by the time I wiped the tears from my eyes at hearing Zacil’s story, by the conclusion of a convention which 300 colleagues joined Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, I was simply grateful that a dedicated and wide-ranging community was ready to get busy in the work that Torah calls us to do: to see to the welfare, the dignity, the humanity of the stranger, the oppressed.
In a workshop, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Larry Bach shared with us a teaching from Deuteronomy 6:
And it shall be, when Adonai your God brings you into the land which sworn to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you great and goodly cities, which you did not build; and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill; and wells dug, which you did not dig; vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant; when you shall have eaten and be full, then be wary lest you forget Adonai, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.
Larry challenged our complacency, we comfortable citizens of these United States who are not wary Deuteronomy’s warning and frequently forget we are but a generation or two removed from the immigrant experience. I was forced to think back through the many family stories I have forgotten to try and recall how my ancestors made it to America’s shores. I remembered the story of my great-grandfather, who [and I appreciate the cosmic irony here] ran away from Russia rather than go to the seminary his parents wanted him to attend. I had always heard how, in sneaking out of Eastern Europe, he was forced at a certain point to hide from Cossacks in the straw and hay of a mattress lining. He saved his own life when not making a sound as the Cossack’s bayonets pierced his stomach, causing blood to pool in his shirt and amid the straw. He carried that scar the rest of his life, across the Atlantic Ocean, and through Ellis Island to America.
I really don’t know if my grandfather was an illegal immigrant or not. I don’t know how or if he got his papers squared away legally. But I have realized, thanks to Larry Bach and Deuteronomy, that my great-grandfather must have skirted or violated innumerable laws and ordinances in escaping the oppression of Russia and making his way to safer shores. I have come to see that I had forgotten: I am the heir of illegal immigrants, real human beings who fled real horror to discover in America a better way of life for their children, and their children’s children. Quite literally, for me.
So I commit myself, along with countless colleagues, to work for comprehensive and humane Immigration Reform. Not just because it is the right thing to do; not simply because it will be the first campaign of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis. I am doing this for my great-grandfather, for my family, and for me. I will no longer forget who I am, and what my identity compels me to do. I am the stranger, and knowing what it feels like to be oppressed, I must work on behalf of strangers, aliens, those in the shadows, everywhere.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.