It’s been painful for many of us in the Jewish community to have our trauma - and how we talk about it - used as a ploy, a distraction to keep us from fully engaging in the truth about what’s being done to detainees. Many communities, many here tonight have histories, stories of detention and dehumanization, family separation, persecution, and genocide, and we can’t allow ourselves to isolate those stories, to position them as unique and historical circumstances if it keeps us from seeing the warning signs and clear implications that it could happen again. The purpose of remembering our pain is not to put it in a glass case, but to make sure we stop the pain of others. When the Jewish community says Never again, that must mean Never again for ANYONE.
I’m here representing Jewish Community Action, who has worked for many years for humane immigration reform and justice for all immigrants. This is a priority for us as Jews.
Our text, the Torah, is very clear on the treatment of the immigrant, the stranger. Among our commandments, this one is issued 36 times, more than any other topic - this is clear, and this is important.
In Exodus: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).
In Leviticus: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
We are commanded - many times - to welcome the stranger, to love them as ourselves, for we were strangers once. In this commandment there are actually two jobs - to insist on humane and compassionate treatment possible for immigrants, and to never forget where we came from, or how we got to where we are.
Immigration is not the story of all American Jews - some of us come from families who are native to this land, some of our families were brought here as enslaved people. But it is a story many of us do share, and it has not always been easy or straightforward. We have been the stranger and we have not always been welcome. In the 1920s, the U.S. passed unprecedentedly restrictive immigration laws. These laws were passed with the explicit aim of keeping out immigrants widely considered “undesirable,” including - especially - Jews.
The passage of these laws kept some Eastern European Jews from coming to the United States. But not all. Many came anyway. It’s estimated that in the decade before the Holocaust, tens of thousands of Jews fled to the United States from places like Russian and Poland to escape religious persecution, economic hardship, and violent pogroms. These were families like mine. They came even though the law did not welcome them. Of course they did. Many of us are here because they did. And we remember, and we welcome the stranger.
It’s so meaningful to be speaking to you now, as the sun sets and we begin Shabbat. Shabbat, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends just after sundown on Saturday, is our holiest day. It ends the week. For some it involves prayer and for some it involves reflection or simply rest, but it is a day on which we Jews are commanded not to do what some might consider work. At the time that this was codified into the Ten Commandments, that was a radical idea. The Jewish people had just been freed from slavery, and here we are commanded not to labor for 25 hours. This is a moment of liberation, of justice. On Shabbat we are not workers, we’re also not bosses. We resist the idea of human capital, we cease controlling any human’s movements.
For Jewish Community Action, Shabbat exists as a moment of social justice, a time to reflect and to envision what a just world could look like. I’m so honored to be here with you all to begin it together.
We traditionally begin Shabbat by lighting candles - in homes - to honor Shabbat, we do not blow them out. I’ll share the blessing symbolically, join me if you know it.