Leonard Oppenheimer – Torah and Immigration
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
Right now in America, a major employer is disrupted, its workforce cut by the hundreds or thousands.
And a detention camp holds people without access to our usual rights and liberties.
But, the employees will not be laid off because of the recession.
There are no terrorists in this camp; it’s not in Cuba, & President Obama has not ordered it to be closed.
Losing their jobs, being held without rights are America’s undocumented immigrants – our country’s
Postville Iowa does not stand alone – it is a microcosm of a larger problem across our land. I want to
invite you to help teach Torah and change policy as part of the JCA’s “Progress by Pesach” campaign – to
end, within the first hundred days of the new Obama administration, the destructive immigration
enforcement raids begun under the previous administration.
How does this tie to what we’ve been reading in Shmot?
Rewind: 3000 years ago, it was much the same – a pivotal time of change. In our first hundred days as a
people, we left Egypt with a mixed multitude, crossed the Sea of Reeds, and encamped at Mount Sinai.
The next ten months at Sinai will establish:
a judiciary, courtesy of Jethro, laws and policies, from G-d a tabernable, built by the people to G-d specs and a functioning community.
In this week’s parsha, T’Tzavveh
, we get detailed instructions for building the Mishkan
, a visible structure for G-d’s presence among the people and for swearing in Aaron as the Cohen-General. Aaron will sport the ephod
, a breastplate set with semi-precious gems representing each of the twelve tribes and inscribed “Holy to the Lord”, to reminding him of his role representing the children of Israel before G-d. And who is missing? The first missing person is our new leader. T’Tzavveh
is the only parsha, from Shmot
forward, that omits our leader – Moses. Many commentators say that Moses’s absence is to leave room for Aaron. But perhaps, we should see Moses’ absence as leaving room for the our responsible involvement in making decision and a warning against rely on any one leader to fix our problems. Finally, Moses’s absence in this parsha makes us think of the seder haggadah and the invitation for you to join us for the JCA Freedom Seder at 3PM on Sunday March 22 at Mt. Zion Temple. Also missing are the strangers among us. Etz Chaim
commentary describes “a mixed multitude” of “varied groups of forced laborers…” who left Egypt with us. Since then, more strangers have joined us on our journey, coming to live and work with us. Yet these strangers may not share our culture, our religion, or even our language. So, how will we, this new people emerging at Sinai, treat the strangers among us?
G-d could have instructed the people: “When you reach the promised land, erect strong walls at your borders, to keep out the strangers, the non-believers, the others
; that your jobs shall remain only with your people and that different ways shall not come amidst the community of Israel.” Instead the Torah paints exactly the opposite vision: we are expected to live in an open land, in successful communities that will, in all likelihood, attract strangers who are different than us. All great societies do this – attract, and even invite strangers to join us, to work amongst us. Ancient Egypt began this way. The Joseph saga culminates with Pharoah’s invitation to the children of Israel to come to Egypt to settle and to work in the land of Goshen. And they can have those smelly, menial jobs that cultured Egyptians won’t do: being shepherds. 400 years later, the children of Israel multiplied into hundreds of thousands. But, changing, wiser, cagier government policy enslaved and oppressed them. Families were ripped apart, literally, as children were separated from parents and drowned in the Nile. The Torah gives us a reminder - one commandment, one reminder, for every 11 years of suffering in captivity in Egypt: Not just once or twice, but 36 times, in the most repeated commandment in Torah, we are taught about our obligation to the stranger and the vulnerable: I won’t read all 36 to you. Here is a sampling
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23: 9]
, in K’doshim
, we learn:
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” Leviticus 19:33-34
So a summary of the Torah’s immigration laws still resonates today: • Don’t enslave strangers. • Don’t wrong strangers. • Don’t oppress strangers. • Treat strangers with respect and compassion. • Provide strangers who accept our ways a pathway to citizenship and integration into our society.
And the irony of history or divine plan was that for thousands of years, our people have been the immigrants, the strangers, the vulnerable resident aliens in the midst of other nations. Will we remember the feelings of our families, and of similar families today --- the feelings and the desperation that impelled them to move when times and places became untenable? Fast-forward all the way to the present: Wealthy, safe first-world societies still attract and invite strangers to live and work amongst us – filling the menial, tough jobs we don’t want. In the United States, our current harsh and unrealistic immigration policies push over 50% of our immigrants to come here without documents, with total numbers swelling to over 12 million people.
Have you detected these immigrants? Have you seen the rebuilt stores and the vibrant community rebuilding on Lake Street? Have you heard “Oprime ocho par espagnol” on a menu? I’m sure you haven’t personally oppressed any strangers. Maybe you even tipped a Somali cab-driver or the Hispanic maid in your hotel. So you are in the clear – right? But in reality, our communal response to immigrants is quite different than how we would act as individuals. And over time, our policies have become increasing harsh and inhumane. Today, there is no pathway to citizenship for our undocumented, mixed multitude of 12 million strangers. Everyone knows that we cannot deport 12 million people – can you imagine any system that could extract 12 million men women and children from our communities, their jobs, their homes and their schools? And if we could imagine a horror on this scale, would we think it a wise use of our money or an ethical way to treat our neighbors? While our past administration knew that it couldn’t deport all the undocumented, it felt it could crank up immigration enforcement, creating a small-scale symbolic deportation system. First it convinced Congress we had a security issue – we wouldn’t hunt down ordinary undocumented immigrants, but we surely needed to track down the criminals living among us. Funding and arrest quotas were increased – and the nominally sounding “fugitive operations program” began in 2003. The numbers? The policy of mass workplace and neighborhood raids arrested strangers at a rate of 20,000 per year. At this rate, it will take just 600 years to deport all the undocumented immigrants. I didn’t say to deport all the criminals - because we aren’t catching them. Our prior administration, through executive policy choices, redirected this program away from hunting the small percentage of truly dangerous criminals to achieving those expanded arrest quotas. Almost ¾ of the 100,000 people rounded up in the past 5 years are undocumented immigrants with no criminal record. And the workers? Federal teams have surrounded workplaces and neighborhoods. The workers caught in the raids are engine re-manufacturers in Washington, meatpackers in Minnesota and Iowa, and others. They will be arrested for civil immigration violations – not for criminal offenses. And the detention camps? Surely our people and our country have seen enough of these… From mass arrests and conveyor belt justice, the immigrants are moved to detention camps, part of a large gulag across our country, housing 33,000 immigrants on any given day and where 80 immigrants have died while in custody since 2005. And the families? Like the instructions of Pharoah, we have separated families: husbands from wives and children, some US citizens, from their parents. We have disrupted neighborhoods and workplaces, sowing fear and confusion among immigrant communities. We move those arrested to far those away detention facilities, keeping key details of their whereabouts from their families and their communities. And what have we at Beth Jacob seen and what did we learn? Our congregation was uniquely touched by the catastrophic and uncompassionate raid and aftermath in Postville Iowa. Like G-d’s own Venn diagram, we saw the overlap of kosher meat production with the policy of mass raids on immigrant workers. We can be proud of our Hechsher Tzedek campaign as an important answer to the consumer and ethical side of how kosher food is produced.
Yet, if Postville was our private wake-up call, I fear we are in danger of drifting back to sleep. The Guatemalans workers and their families have been deported. We cannot let their departure let our ethical compass waver. We cannot forget that the cruelty and inhumanity we saw in Postville IA has been repeated in Richfield MN, Worthington MN, Houston TX, Newark NJ, Boulder Co and in scores of other communities… Journey with me, from Purim through Pesach. At Purim, scholars point out that Haman, a descendant of the Amalekites, oppressed the Jews of Persia in the same way that his ancestors attacked the vulnerable among our people as they marched in the desert. Here’s another message in the Purim story: Haman asked for and received a change in government policy against the Jews, the strangers, in Persia; and even when Achashveros knew his decision needed to be reversed, no one was permitted to change the King’s decree. Thankfully, we live in a democracy. We can influence and change the executive decisions of our leader. By Pesach, our new administration will be passing through its “first 100-days”– that pivotal period for our new president and our new government, and for initiating changed policies for our people. We really are at a critical point when our government wants and needs to hear from you. Just 2 weeks ago, a month into the new President’s watch, continuing the failed policies of the past administration, immigration agents swept down and raided Yamato Engine Specialists in Bellingham, Washington. It was news to those of us who had hoped that this administration would stop the raids. And surprisingly, it was also news to the Executive Branch – to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who promptly ordered a review of the action and the policy. So the Executive Branch is actively considering our choices right now. On Wednesday, the New York Times editorial page opined: “Are Mr. Obama and Ms. Napolitano in charge or not? Let them show it by ending the raids…” In just a few minutes, before this Torah Service ends, we will say a prayer for our country and its leaders. We pray to “Teach them insights from Your Torah…” In our democracy, we have easy ways (like email and petitions) to teach Torah insights and policy changes to our leaders. In the long-term we’ll need your help to influence the legislative branch, Congress, to change our laws to allow a saner, effective, compassionate immigration system and a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants already here. In the medium term, you can join us to learn more about “Progress by Pesach” and fair and halachic treatment of immigrants at the Freedom Seder on Sunday March 22. In the “short–term”, that’s a halachic term that means tonight, after Havdala and definitely before you forget about the Guatemalans from Postville or the latest raid in Bellingham or the halacha (36 times strong) about how we treat the stranger, all of us can take action to influence the review now underway in the Executive Branch. In the service sheet, and in “This Week @ Beth Jacob”, you will find links to help you quickly and easily send an email to our new President and to sign on to the national and local “Progress by Pesach” petitions. And we are all honored that Rabbi Allen will be one of those presenting the petitions in Washington DC in April as a representative of JCA and our community. Please take action tonight to help us end the raids by treating our mixed multitude with compassion and with respect, for we were once those strangers.
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