Today is May 27, 2017 -

Kol Nidre – Welcoming the Stranger

The question of whether a rabbi should talk about politics from the pulpit is a debate throughout the Jewish Community. Clearly it is against the law, rightfully so, for clergy to endorse a candidate from the pulpit. Yet the root question is whether a rabbi should talk about issues that are deemed to be controversial. Issues being addressed and debated on Sunday morning TV, the editorial pages of newspapers and most importantly in the cathedrals that hold our local, state and federal governments. Should rabbis speak out on these matters?

I would argue, the answer is yes! On a daily basis I am tasked with making our religion, our tradition meaningful in the time for which we live today, that mandate cannot only apply to those topics for which everyone agrees. By the way, I could talk all day about Kashrut or Shabbat and while many will lose interest, those who do not observe would not feel that I have turned my back on them or stepped on sacred ground.

In a beautiful sermon written by Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, the Rabbi Emeritus of Central Synagogue in NY, he wrote:

“Not only should a rabbi talk of these subjects, expressing an opinion derived from our historical wisdom, but not to do so forfeits our particular mandate to teach and make relevant our tradition as it applies to our lives and society.

I shudder to think that rabbis refrained from speaking out about our government’s policy of inaction during the Nazi era because there was political debate about it. Rabbis needed to object to our government’s heartless decision in 1939 to turn away from our shores the 937 Jewish refugees who sailed on board the SS St. Louis, fleeing for their lives and seeking a haven from the Nazi gas chambers. We can never forget that though they sailed within sight of the Florida coastline their fate was sealed when the United States forbade the St. Louis from entering American harbors, a portent of American policy during WW II.”[1]

Where would we be if the clergy had not spoken out about the importance of a Jewish State? Where would our country be if in the 1950’s and 60’s clergy, of all faiths, throughout the south had kept quiet during the civil rights movement.

The legacy of my grandparents’ was WWII; my parents’ Vietnam and Civil rights; and the pressing issue of my generation will be how we treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Do we open our hearts and our hands to those in need, or clench our fist?

Fortune magazine conducted a poll asking “what is your attitude towards allowing… political refugees to come into the United States”?[2] Only 4.9% said that we should encourage them to come, even if it means raising immigration quotas, while the majority 67.4% said that with conditions as they are, we should try and keep them out.

The poll I am referencing was not recent; it was done by Fortune Magazine in July 1938. The full question was “what is your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees to come into the United States?” At that time fewer than 5% of the population believed that the United States should allow political refugees fleeing Europe to cross the Atlantic onto American soil.

Yet, when another poll was done on January 20, 1939, after the tragic events of Kristallnacht, asking ‘whether the US government should permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany?’ still a majority of 61% said “No,” while those inclined to let them in rose to 30%.

That was 1939. And at the time, the scapegoats were Jews fleeing Europe. But this language is virtually the same as what we hear today, only the targets have changed, to Mexicans, Sudanese, Burmese and Syrians.

When Jewish refugees attempted to enter the United States in the late 30’s and 40’s the concern was not terrorism, it was communism, anarchism. The belief was that we would be spies who would infiltrate the United States’ free press and government. Look back through whatever lens you choose, the fears that Americans had regarding Jews in the 30’s and 40’s is not all that different from the fears that some have about refugees today.

The question we must grapple with is one we have struggled with since the founding of our country, how does our Jewishness affect our identity and our beliefs as Americans?

Shortly after the founding of the United States, the newly-elected President, George Washington along with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson travelled to Newport, Rhode Island as part of a goodwill tour to see the newly established colonies. After his visit the members of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, sent the President a letter thanking him for his visit and more importantly working to remove all barriers to religious liberty and civil equality in these new United States. They wrote:

“Deprived as we have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine…[3]

President Washington replied to the letter only a few days later, a letter that many historians believe to be the bedrock of religious freedom in our country.

Washington wrote:

“… for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid…

[signed] G. Washington”[4] (August 18, 1790)

And so we must ask ourselves today as Jews, sitting in the seats of comfort, what is our response to those less fortunate, who are running for their lives? To what Emma Lazarus called:

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
[The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus]

We are a people whose story is tied to wandering from place to place, trying to be accepted, trying to find a home of our own. Jewish history is replete with examples of how our wandering made us the nation we are today.  I would go so far as to say that our Jewishness is defined by our wandering. In a few weeks we will read these lines from Parshat Lech Lecha where God tells Abram to pick up his family and leave the place for which you are comfortable and move to a place I will show you.

Later on we read that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to meet them years later as they came to Egypt along with the entire Israelite nation begging for food as a famine forced them off their land.  The Israelites came down to Egypt as free men, but as they became too numerous and a new Pharoah began his reign, the Israelites were put under forced labor.

And yet even though the Torah was written at a time when we had no home and were citizens of the world, in its infinite wisdom, believing that we would one day forget these watershed events in our history generations after being freed, it outlined the compassion and empathy we must treat the stranger among us.

You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)

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)

The Syrian crisis is nothing new, the conflict began in 2011 during the Arab Spring with peaceful protests against the Assad Regime. Over time the protests, as well as the reactions by the government, became increasingly hostile. Five years into the conflict, it has become one of the most serious humanitarian situations in the history of the world.

Over 6 million people have been internally displaced by the fighting. More than 400,000 people have died. 4.8 million Syrians have been forced to take refuge in neighboring countries and many more still need a place to go, many have lost all of their life savings and possessions. There are 60 million people in the world who have been displaced by conflict or persecution, comprising a global refugee population larger than at any time since World War II. At present refugees from Syria are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which while good hosts do not have the space nor the funds to handle an influx of refugees.

Tonight, I am very lucky as I do not need to give a sermon about us remaining indifferent. I get to talk about the amazing work we have done, a synagogue of 525 families who came together to help one family, and in the process came together to help change the world.

In December, a congregant, Sara Kohen, dropped me a line, inquiring about whether Beth El would want to help sponsor a refugee family. The email sat in my inbox for months, I could not file it away, nor could I delete it…it stared at me every morning when I opened my inbox. I would watch the news at night, hear of the death and destruction happening across the world…then check on my own children, know that they were safe in their own beds and go to sleep. And so I sat, as a son, father, husband and rabbi…thinking to myself what can I do? The problem is so big and I am one person.

I knew that staring at the email was no longer an option.  I realized our lives will be judged not by the hours we work, or the money we make, but the lives we change and people we help. I sent an email to Lutheran Family Services asking how Beth El Synagogue could help. I was put in touch with Lacey Studnicka, the Program development officer for LFS as well as Jennifer Gentle, the Community Services Volunteer Coordinator. I first met Lacey at a taping for the local news; she was kind enough to invite me, to speak on the Jewish response to the world wide refugee crisis. I was shocked to learn that in any given month approximately 100 refugees (roughly 15-20 families) are moving to Omaha from the Congo, Sudan, Burma and most recently Syria. I was also amazed that a majority of these families, coming from all over the world, not speaking a word of English, within 2 years have purchased a home.

I knew something needed be done and so after speaking with Jim Zipursky, our Synagogue President, who was 100% supportive, I brought up the idea at a synagogue board meeting. While he will shun the thanks and appreciation, after explaining my desire to get involved Allan Murow stood up and said “I’m in”. A rabbi can have a vision, I can know what I believe to be right, but without congregants who take the reins nothing happens. An email went out to the congregation, a meeting was convened, and on August 31st at noon, I remember like it was yesterday, over lunch Lacey and Jen told us that a Syrian Family would be arriving on September 19th, if we would want to sponsor them. We all took a deep breath and got to work.

I would like to ask all those who volunteered, whether donating items – big or small, participating on one of the various committees, meeting the family at the airport, helping to move furniture, making grocery runs…etc…please rise.

Watching our congregation come together, in that 2 month period was incredible. The night the family arrived I was filled with emotions. What started as an idea became a reality thanks to so many.  I can’t help but believe that our grandparents and great-grandparents, many of them refugees to this country, are looking down on us and smiling, knowing that we have finally learned the true meaning of the verse “you shall love the stranger, for you were once a stranger in a strange land”.

We read our people’s exodus from Egypt over and over every year on Passover. We imagine the splitting of the sea, and the wandering through the desert. Yet very few of us imagine fleeing as refugees and our Exodus ending at Eppley Airport.  I was not your rabbi when this congregation helped to resettle Russian Jews into our community.  That experience certainly came with its own set of challenges, and I am proud to be a part of community that has continually cared for others. Yet I want to give you a brief insight into the experience of welcoming a complete stranger – one with whom we share no language nor religion; a stranger for whom we could not anticipate what their reaction would be to being welcomed by a synagogue community; a stranger for whom tears of joys flowed when the first words out of their mouth was: Shukran – Thank You.

Waiting at the airport with 20 or so other congregants, we had to wait a while. I am told it’s very common as the families are given very little help from the airlines or TSA and once they arrive they don’t know where they are, where to go or what to do… so we waited and waited! A large man, walked by, saw our signs in English and Arabic, he turned to us and while I expected a confrontation, he looked us with deep care and concern saying “the family is walking around a bit lost, please know I think what you are doing is incredible”.

They emerged. We embraced. The cultural differences were abundant: from walking the family through the airport and realizing that they had never used an escalator before, to putting the five children in car seats – another first. Yet, seeing this family settle into an apartment that was literally filled with items, and time, and love from all of us in this congregation I realized that while we may have our differences, watching our children play together transcends language, religion and most importantly politics.

We gave this family a second chance, a new life, in a new world. They came seeking freedom and we gave them a home. When the family tells their story, leaving Syria along the Turkish border for a refugee camp in Jordan, they will tell of a group of Jews who met them, loved them and taught them how to live in American Society. Not to proselytize or to preach, but because this is what our faith demands of us.

Yom Kippur is a day when we stand ready to be judged for our actions. The Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save the world entire. Our actions have made the world a better place.

As Jews, we have a moral obligation to speak out against injustice and wrong-doing. The great modern Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[5]

This was our time and we answered the call and let our voices and our actions be heard.

For too long we have quantified our Jewishness through attendance at synagogue services, functions and dues…no more. All of these things are necessary, but not sufficient to our charge to being Jewish. Let us use 5777 not to count how many members we have, or attendees at services, or even the size of our buildings…but how many lives we change, how many people we help, how many hearts we touch.

Let that be the legacy we leave our children and grandchildren.


[1] http://www.centralsynagogue.org/worship/sermons/detail/our-voice-and-our-values

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/what-americans-thought-of-jewish-refugees-on-the-eve-of-world-war-ii/

[3] http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

[5] ibid

[6] https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Grandeur-Spiritual-Audacity-Essays/dp/0374524955