Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)
In May of 1939, the S.S. St. Louis reached the shore of Miami, Fla. On board the ship were 937 Jewish European refugees, including two-year-old Joachim Hirsch. All of them had applied for U.S. visas. After a right-wing media campaign calling the immigrants communists, the United States denied the ship entry and turned it back toward Europe to face the Final Solution. Little Joachim died in Auschwitz at the age of seven.
Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the United States of America.
I traveled to El Paso, Texas for Moral Monday at the Borderlands on July 29. Organized by Repairers of the Breach under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber II, clergy of all faiths were called to the border to bear witness to the immigrant crisis and to lift our voices to effect changes in policy and hearts. We learned of the depth of the crisis from the leaders on the ground. We heard testimony from those who have experienced family separation and ICE detention, denied food, water, and basic hygiene. We heard of dangerous conditions in the Juarez detention centers where thousands are held under the Remain in Mexico policy. We learned about the difficulties asylum seekers have obtaining legal counsel, and the impossible odds they face in court without it.
Together with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith leaders, we marched. Over a chorus of singing supporters, dozens of clergy approached the gates of a Department of Homeland Security detention center, locked in preparation for our arrival. Reverend Barber requested we be granted entrance to provide pastoral care for the immigrants behind the gate, as is their right to receive. Our request was denied. With one voice, the clergy prayed until the police demanded we leave. Having been warned of felony charges, we complied.
Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Texas.
While Moral Monday was a powerful experience, the crisis was brought home for me at the Annunciation House immigrant center. It is the first place immigrant families go upon release from the detention camps. Every day, several busloads of families with children are brought to the center with only the clothing on their backs. They are fed, given clothing and basic supplies, and volunteers contact their sponsors and arrange transportation to the next stop on their journey.
I spent my time caring for the children while their parents planned their next steps. There were about 30 children in a room full of toys and coloring books. At a glance, it could have been craft time at a Tot Shabbat. A closer look found children in soiled, tattered clothing. Most of them were not wearing shoes. The soles of their feet were black with dirt. I could smell the detention camps lingering on them. They had long fingernails and matted hair. Many were sick and malnourished.
I do not speak Spanish, so we communicated through gestures. The children could not tell me where they came from or what they had been through, but I could see their trauma in the way a tiny girl panicked when a child snatched her toy, and from the big tears that filled a little boy’s eyes as his mother left him to meet with a volunteer. I could see it in the quiet stillness of the older children. Just that morning, they were caged in detention camps. We can’t know what their futures will hold.
Love the stranger, for you were a stranger in the immigration center playroom.
And yet, I wasn’t a stranger. The children called me Tia. Auntie. First, one little boy, and then I was Tia to all of them. They exclaimed it as they showed me their artwork. They called it out for help. They said it as they reached for me to pick them up and hug them. They had an understanding that we seem to lose as we grow up in this world—that, no matter where we come from, no matter our language or culture, we are all family.
Thirty-six times, we are commanded to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt—Torah’s most repeated commandment. The way we treat the stranger is the measure of our moral character. We are failing to heed this call. I have seen first-hand the cruelty with which we are treating those who come to America seeking its promise. Their Promised Land is turning its back on them, and it is happening on our watch.
In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as though he came forth from Egypt. (Passover Haggadah)
The time to stand up to defend these immigrants is now. This is not a political issue—it is a moral one, and the commandment is clear. Whether or not you believe that these immigrants should have made the journey here, we are obligated to treat them with the dignity with which we treat our own, for they are ours. We must grant them due process and care for their basic needs without subjecting them to the humiliation of cages or the trauma of separating children from parents. The turning away of the S.S. St. Louis is now widely seen as a humanitarian disgrace. When Jews look back on this shameful era, we must be able to say that we stood up in the face of the callous policies that will be a permanent blight on the moral fabric of this country.
We are a people who know the asylum seeker’s experience. From the Exodus to the Roman conquests to the Spanish expulsion to the Holocaust, ours is a refugee story. The trauma of these immigrants will last generations, as our trauma has. This humanitarian crisis is so vast and systemic that it is overwhelming, but as people of conscience, we can’t look away. We must educate ourselves and mobilize. Donate. Protest. Call our representatives. Vote.
Once, it was Joachim. Today, it is Jakelin, Darlyn, Felipe, Juan, Wilmer, and Carlos. We are Jews and we are all their tias; we cannot stand idly by.
Cantor Jennifer Reuben
Cantor Jennifer Reuben is the cantor at Ohef Sholom Temple.