A D'Var Torah from JCA Organizer Jacob Kraus-Preminger

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Parashat Sh’mot: Knowing Ourselves, Knowing One Another, and Knowing What it Takes

Adath Jeshurun Congregation

Shabbat, January 18, 2020

Shabbat Shalom. Thank you to Rabbi Kravitz for inviting me this morning and to all of you for being here. I also want to take a moment to thank everyone here at Adath for your extraordinary leadership around Tzedek and Hesed work, Since I started working at JCA on Immigration and Criminal Justice issues a year and a half ago, I have really enjoyed working with your clergy and Hesed leadership on meaningful programs and xin support of impactful policies such as Driver’s Licenses for All. My primary background as an organizer is working with synagogues, and because of that, I believe deeply in the power a synagogue has to transform individual lives and entire communities. Adath confirms that belief for me every day.

I want to start with a story: A group of people, facing food insecurity in their homeland, immigrate to a rich and powerful nation, where a family member helps them settle and ensures that they are welcome in this new place. They are able to experience the security they sought, and their community grows over the years. However, leadership changes, and the new ruler of this land has no relationship with the immigrant community. He is worried that they may challenge his power, and stokes fear against them. He levies oppressive measures against them, and argues that if this community continues to grow and thrive, they will take over the whole nation. The immigrants now face violence, repression, and are forced into labor without fair compensation.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should, because we read it in today’s parashah: Sh’mot. Sh’mot contains the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt -- a story that features so prominently in our prayers, our ritual, and, of course, our holiday calendar.

Why are we constantly recalling this story? Perhaps because it has something to teach us about how to act in the world today, when we see xenophobia, repression, violence, and fear-mongering.

In particular, Parashat Sh’mot contains three lessons I find useful for us to consider in these challenging times:

  1. Know yourself
  2. Know one another
  3. Know what it takes

First, know yourself. This is a lesson we learn from Moses, who, though he is an Israelite child, is raised from the age of three months up to adulthood as a prince of Egypt. We read this morning of how Moses, now grown, witnesses an Egyptian beating an Israelite. The Israelite is described as “achav” -- Moses’ kinsman or brother (Exodus 2:11). Moses, though he has been raised in a situation so far removed from that of his people, sees himself and his family in the eyes of the Israelite slaves. He doesn’t have to -- he could live the rest of his life in the privilege afforded to princes of Egypt -- but he knows that his destiny is wrapped up in the destiny of his kinfolk, the Israelites.

Knowing who we truly are, what we value, who we share a destiny with, provides a strong foundation for the work we do for immigrant justice. Knowing who we are requires us to remember that the vast majority of Jews who live in the United States came here as immigrants, either at times when we were welcomed here or after overcoming xenophobic barriers. I will never forget my first visit to Duluth, when I was able to walk the same streets my great-great-grandfather walked as he took his first steps in America. But I will also never forget that the only reason my wife is here is because her grandfather was able to circumvent the quotas that kept Jews fleeing the shoah (Holocaust) out of the U.S. Knowing who we are also challenges us to consider where our long-term interests lie: in a society that sows fear and division or in one that embraces diversity. Knowing who we are invites us to acknowledge the relationship between antisemitism, white nationalism, and anti-immigrant movements. It helps us show up for ourselves as part of our work to show up for all impacted by injustice.

Second, know one another. One could argue that the most significant change that ushers in the enslavement of the Israelites is a breakdown in connection and relationship. The first thing we learn about the new Pharaoh who arises in this story is that he did not know Joseph -- “lo yada et Yosef” (Exodus 1:8). This Pharaoh did not have a relationship with Joseph, or his descendants, making him susceptible to fear and anger towards them.

We can contrast this with G-d, as we read just before the iconic moment with the burning bush. “Va-yara Elohim et b’nei Yisrael va-yeda Elohim” -- “And G-d looked upon the Israelites and G-d knew” (Exodus 2:25). G-d knew the people, and could hear their suffering, and chose to act upon it.

Relationship is key to overcoming fear and division. In the Fall of 2018 JCA members knocked on doors and had non-partisan conversations in Edina, Hopkins, and Minnetonka with voters about immigrants and immigration. What we learned, time and again, was that when the voters we spoke with shared stories of immigrants they knew, or heard stories from us about immigrants we knew, they became more open-minded and sympathetic on the issue. Relationships can change hearts and minds, and they also can help us remain aware of what the needs are in our community. I am really lucky that JCA partners with community organizations led by Latinx immigrants, Black immigrants, Asian/Pacific Islander immigrants, native people, people of color who are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system, advocacy organizations, legal service providers, and faith communities like Adath. It is through these relationships that we are able to identify things that need to change and act powerfully to change them.

Finally, know what it takes. Perhaps the most surprising part of this parasha to me was that, when G-d is enlisting Moses to free the Israelites from bondage, G-d tells Moses everything that is going to happen! G-d says to Moses: “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). G-d even reveals the last of the Ten Plagues: the slaying of the first born. Why give away the rest of the story?

To me, the lesson here is that when we set out to create change and take risks in the face of adversity, we should do our best to know what it takes to succeed. The campaign I work on at JCA -- Decriminalizing Communities -- has a wide ranging vision where immigration enforcement and criminal justice systems are transformed into systems that center human dignity, rather than fear and division. And, we know that it will take a whole lot of changes -- political, structural, narrative changes to get there. So, we look at what we have the power to change right now.

One of the places we can act most powerfully is on the County level. County governments have control over many institutions, such as sheriff departments, jails, courthouses, and social services, that have a significant impact on the lives of those targeted by immigration enforcement. And we have the ability to create change in how those governments operate. I’ll share two brief examples.

The first is a story of a significant achievement we’ve already made. If you’ve ever observed an immigration court proceeding, you’ll notice that much of it looks like a standard courtroom: there is a judge, a prosecutor, a defendant, an interpreter, a court recorder, and a gallery. One key difference is that, in immigration court, the “defendant” is less likely to have legal representation, because they have no right to legal representation. This can make a significant difference -- people with legal representation are ten times more likely to have a positive result at immigration court than those without. For the past several years, JCA and our partners have been advocating for county governments to commit public funding for immigrant legal defense, and I am excited to share with you all that Hennepin County has just completed its first year of such a program and has committed funds for the coming year. While the funding is nowhere near the need, we are hopeful that Hennepin County will build on the success of this program.

The second story is of work that is very much in progress. One of the main ways Hennepin County residents end up in ICE custody is through the county jail. Currently, when someone is arrested and booked into the county jail, the jail records where they were born, and if ICE asks for to speak to an immigrant on the phone, jail staff will arrange for that to happen. Moreover, ICE will ask jail staff to tell them when specific people will be released, and the jail staff will share that information with them. While this level of cooperation is much lower than it was a couple of years ago, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure local law enforcement is only enforcing their own laws, and not immigration law.

So, through research and productive conversations with the Hennepin County Sheriff, Dave Hutch, we and our partners are learning exactly what it will take to eliminate this cooperation, and will be taking action to do just that.

I want to invite each of you to be a part of this action. Together, we can reflect on who we are and why we care about immigrant justice, build powerful relationships with one another and with partners, and understand what it takes to build a more safe and welcoming community. Here is how we can walk this path together: JCA is hosting a meeting to learn more about these and other opportunities to take action for Decriminalizing Communities on Monday, February 10 from 6-8 PM. Please join us.

Again, thank you all and Shabbat Shalom.

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