Rosh HaShanah 5778
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
There isn’t a soul in this room that cannot recount how and when they or their ancestors came to this country. In fact, our very identities are rooted in the travels and travails of our forbearers. Aside from Native Americans, the majority of Americans came from somewhere else, more often than not, under duress or due to duress. The United States is a nation of immigrants – something it shares in common with our Jewish heritage. As Jews, we were a wandering people, almost always painfully aware that we came from somewhere else, and our destiny might ultimately rest somewhere else.
Our journey began with a command to our father Abraham – Lech lecha, me’artzacha, um’melad’techa, u’mibayt avicha. “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house….” (Gen.12:1)
Our story continued through to Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, who was forced to Egypt, and as an outsider – a foreign-born – rose to great prominence. And then Joseph’s descendants remained and became enslaved. An entire working class, oppressed and broken-spirited, were led out of servitude with a dream of a promised land. Not all were the enslaved Israelites, some – many – were from other cultures who sought a better future and joined the marching hoard through the desolate and trying desert. It may have been easy for the Israelites to look down upon the others who joined with them, and found their suffering wanting – less than what the Israelites endured. They were excoriated and chided: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [19:33-34]. This principle is echoed 35 times in the Torah – the most repeated of any commandment.
So essential to our identity, this notion of being strangers in the land of Egypt, that we recreate our enslavement – relive our enslavement – around our Seder tables at Passover. We learn from tradition that the successful seder experience is one in which each participant can feel the burning sands under one’s feet. For it is only when we get in touch with the pain of enslavement can we really appreciate the redemption and our own journey to freedom.
These past nine months have seen challenges to our very identities as Jews and Americans as bans have been proposed based upon the locale (read: religion) of those seeking to travel to our country; and now those who were brought to our country unwittingly by their parents; and due to inaction of a wayward congress had a presidential decree enacted that allowed these “childhood arrivals” to go to school, get a job and pay taxes. The barriers to citizenship remained in place, but these “dreamers” would, in large measure, not become a burden on society.
Each day. As I drive across the Brooklyn Bridge I need only turn my head slightly to see the Statue of Liberty. As a New Yorker, that sight is as ubiquitous to New York as the Empire State Building. At the base of the pedestal are the words of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “The New Colossus,” penned in 1883 to raise funds for the project.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Lazarus, herself was born into a large Sephardic Jewish family. While one of her great-grandfathers came from Germany, the rest of her mother’s and father’s family immigrated from Portugal to New York long before the American Revolution. Her Jewish soul was awakened after reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (a novel in which the eponymous character discovers his Jewish identity after living his life as an English gentleman). She learned about the Russian pogroms in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, as the Jews were blamed for this and other economic problems. This led to thousands of destitute Ashkenazi Jews arriving on the shores of New York. She wrote widely about these new immigrants, wrote a book, Songs of a Semite (the year before she wrote New Colossus) and helped to create the Hebrew Technical Institute of New York which provided vocational training so that the new immigrants could become self-supporting.
Paul Auster (“The City and the Country” NY Times Op-ed September 9, 2002) brilliant author and critic, noted that the poem shifted the public’s perception of Lady Liberty – originally intended to show that the gateway to America, and America herself, would be freed from the chains of monarchical rule. But soon, she became a beacon of freedom and a welcome sign to the myriads of immigrants that passed by her. “I believe that idea took hold in us when Emma Lazarus’s poem was affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. Bartholdi’s gigantic effigy was originally intended as a monument to the principles of international republicanism, but ”The New Colossus” reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world.”
There are those in current our government who seek a restoration or the implication of republicanism – a rejection of using the law to force change upon society (read: a rejection of Obama administration imposed “fixes” by presidential decree like DACA, or rules insuring that victims of sexual abuse on college campuses were able to press charges against their abusers, or providing safe restroom facilities for transgendered youth) – and, in most cases, by current Presidential decree and fiat, removing or erasing these “burdens.” A 2016 survey of the 800,000 registered DACA recipients found that about 87% are in the workforce. If DACA workers were to lose their work permits and jobs, the Center for American Progress recently estimated that the cumulative U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, would be reduced by $433.4 billion over the next 10 years.
While it is heartening to learn in the past few days that the President and Democratic leaders are now looking at legislative fixes for the “Dreamers”, at the same time, and quite underreported, is the fact that the Administration is planning to reduce the number of refugees allowed in the US to under 50,000 in the coming year – the lowest number in almost 4 decades. The NY Times reported (Sept 12, 2017) “… in recent weeks, as the deadline approached for President Trump to issue the annual determination for refugee admissions required by the Refugee Act of 1980, some inside the White House — led by Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior adviser for policy — have pressed to set the ceiling even lower.”
What is most galling to many, is that the architect of the destruction of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as well as the policy that became known as “The Muslim Ban”, and now the press to reduce the number of refugees allowed in this country, is Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior advisor for policy, former communications director for then Senator, now Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, and former congregant of the Santa Monica Synagogue, who graduated from Hebrew School in 2001.
HaAretz columnist and senior editor, American-born journalist who made Aliyah, Bradley Burston, wrote on Sept 8, 2017:
I take the killing of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program very personally. And one of its killers, as well. Stephen Miller is my lantsman (Yiddish for countryman)…. His people come from my dad’s hometown, the shtetl of Antopol, in what is today Belarus. As President Donald Trump’s senior advisor for policy, he is by far the most famous person descended from the villagers of Antopol…. As the president’s point man on immigration, it’s his job to help kill the DACA program and jeopardize the future of 800,000 so-called Dreamers, who were brought to America as children, Americans in every sense but citizenship. I can’t help but take this personally. Immigration is why Steve and I are both alive. Helping to kill DACA and curb immigration are why Steve is a disgrace to the memory of that town, to the memory of what the Nazis did there to the people who couldn’t escape and immigrate to the United States. Because once upon a time, before World War II, a Republican president and a Republican Senate and a Republican House of Representatives made a law that choked off immigration. One of their main targets was the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, from places like Antopol. My dad and his family were among the lucky ones. They got out in time. So were Stephen Miller’s great-grandparents, the Glotzers. They were part of the immigrant wave that anti-Semites called steerage slime. If they hadn’t gotten out, they would have been rounded up when the Nazis came…. It took the SS four days to shoot to death all of Antopol’s 2,300 Jews.
Burston further points out that Miller “…haughtily, and in front of millions of viewers, on live television, belittled and misrepresented as “not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty” the American-Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ revered “The New Colossus,” words that have welcomed millions of immigrants to America.
While one might argue policy and politics, when we deal with the issue of refugees and immigrants, we cannot deny that there but for the grace of God, and immigration officers, those of us who are here, got here, in large measure, because our antecedents got in. Imagine the American Jewish community today, had the US welcomed the MS St. Louis in 1939 carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany rather than turning it away and sending it back to Europe where half of its passengers perished during the Holocaust.
Steve Bannon was just interviewed by Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes (Sept 10, 2017). Rose began his question with the statement that they were both descended from immigrants and immigrants built this country. Before he could even conclude his question, Bannon cut him off and said that the idea that immigrants built this country was the conceit of the “Liberal Left” – he countered that in the 18th and 19th century, America was built by “its citizens.” But any sentient being would have to conclude, that save for Native Americans, who were not then considered citizens, all citizens’ origins were from somewhere else.
Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, recently penned a moving op-ed in the New York Times (August 18, 2017), breaking with his party on the issue of immigration:
Someone recently said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” The man who said that never met Manuel Chaidez. Manuel was just 16 when he made it from Sonora, Mexico, to the F-Bar, my family’s ranch outside the town of Snowflake, in Northern Arizona. I was just a kid, no more than 6 or so, and to me Manuel looked like a full-grown man. He wasn’t much more than a kid himself, of course, but he worked as if his family depended on him. They probably did. He couldn’t have worked harder if the ranch were his own. In terms of material possessions, Manuel was an invisible man. His capacity for hard, backbreaking work was his sole credential in life. By no Washington bureaucrat’s estimation would he have been judged a “high-value immigrant.” He didn’t speak much English. He didn’t come from money. He hadn’t finished high school. He had no technological innovation to his credit, nor had he started a business. In other words, count Manuel among the 99 percent of immigrants who have ever come to this country, including many of our ancestors, the “wretched refuse” who got here as fast as they could and who made this country what it is once they arrived.
AFTER A DESCRIPTION OF THE BACK-BREAKING WORK MANUEL DID, FLAKE CONTINUES:
…It is Manuel’s résumé that puts him in the company of so many of the men, women and children from all over the world who, since the beginning of the American experiment, left behind everyone and everything they knew to come to a place they had seen only in their dreams, in the desperate hope of building a life for themselves — and if not for themselves, then for their children. By working by their side, I came to know that these Americans by choice are some of the most inspiring Americans of all….
Here we gather on this magical isle of Nantucket. This island would grind to a halt were it not for the work of many immigrants. As reported by Jason Graziadei in N magazine (November 2016):
The island … has historically been an immigrant entry port in which pioneering migrants from around the world arrived and eventually established self-perpetuating communities. In the past, it was the Irish and the Cape Verdeans. Today it is immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and, most prominently, Latin America…. The US Census Bureau’s official population estimate for Nantucket is 10,925 year-round residents. For those of us actually living on the island, it’s a laughable number. Whether it’s the enrollment at the schools, the massive volume of trash generated at the landfill, or the island’s soaring demand for electricity, Nantucketers know the real year-round population number is far higher…. …Town Clerk Catherine Flanagan Stover has made it her mission to find the true number…. Stover believes Nantucket’s year-round population may actually be more than 23,000 souls.
It is in the school system here that one can see the impact of immigration. In the late 1990s, the island school district was 97 percent white. Twenty years later, more than 40 percent of the student body is non-white, including large concentrations of Hispanic, Jamaican, Asian and Eastern European students. There are over 370 bilingual children, with eleven different home languages represented in the schools. Fourteen years ago, there was one English Language Learner teacher on the island. Today, nine full-time instructors.
While this influx has benefitted the island greatly, it is not without its consequences and pitfalls. There are many with questions concerning their own status. People who have been trying to legitimize their status and secure themselves and their safety. Our dear friend, Rev. Linda Simmons has been working on immigration issues for ten years, the past three years on Island with Pastor Eduardo Calles from Faro de Luz, the El Salvadorian Congregation that shares the space in Hendrix Hall that our congregation uses throughout the summer. She also partners with Tom Ryan from St. Mary’s, as the Catholic Church has been on the forefront of the work assisting immigrants, locally and nationally. They have been working together as the Nantucket Immigration Resource Center to analyze what is happening on the Island currently, how to work with the Nantucket Police Department in developing a policy as to how they will relate to ICE (Immigration Crime Engagement).
There is also the Immigration Resource Center at the Community Action Committee of the Cape & Islands which provides free assistance to residents of Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket with questions relating to immigration law, as well as assistance in obtaining American citizenship, applying for or renewing green-cards, adjusting immigration status, and applying for protective visas or work permits.
The Religious Action Center in Washington DC, the social-justice arm of the Reform movement has announced The Urgency of Now – Immigrant Justice Campaign, to encourage congregations in North America to commit to working for immigrant justice. We should consider joining hands with Rev. Simmons and the work being done here on Nantucket, and pledge to work with other congregations to advocate for a more just immigration policy in America. Jewish tradition demands nothing less.
This January, the United Nations will mark the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In preparation for that event, Pope Francis has already released his statement. It focuses on the four-fold responsibilities: TO WELCOME, TO PROTECT, TO PROMOTE AND TO INTEGRATE. That sounds like a simple prescription, and one that should inspire us all.
This morning, we read the conscience-pricking story of the Binding of Isaac. The very last line that I read was: “And Abraham returned to his servants, and they departed together for Be’er-sheva; and Abraham dwelled in Beer-sheva.”
Abraham dwelled in Beer-sheba, but then the journey of his descendants took them to the four corners of earth. Some of those future generations landed here, and were lucky enough to make this place our home. We should welcome, protect, promote and integrate those who seek the same freedoms that drew our people here, and allowed us to celebrate this New Year in freedom and prosperity.
Shana Tova u’mitukah! May this be a New and Sweet Year for us all!