Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Immigration Reform -- A Thanksgiving Weekend View

Vayeishev – On Welcoming Home and the Challenge of Immigration Reform
Sermon for Shabbat Thanksgiving – November 26, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

With Rabbi Bob Alper joining us last Sunday evening for an incredibly successful and entertaining evening of comedy, it was inevitable. Many of us were trotting out our own favorite jokes, some of them even presentable in public. In the process, I was reminded of this gem:

The first generation Jewish son of immigrant parents had made good. He was heading off to college – the dream of every Jewish parent. He was going to make something of himself in this new country. He came home after his first semester – dean’s list. His parents were so proud. His mother worried, however, that he was lonely, on his own, so far away. The son reassured her that he had made many wonderful friends. The father looked at him and asked – “Are they Jewish?” “Some,” replied the son. The mom stopped worrying, but the dad began to.

Late in the spring, right before he came home for Passover, the son called all excited, to ask if he could bring a friend home for seder. His parents were delighted, and said that he could. And before they could ask any more, the son hung up.

And so it was a few days later, that he arrived home and introduced his parents to his friend – a beautiful Native American girl. His mother welcomed her in and started peppering her with questions about her background and her family’s history. His dad took him aside, to ask similar questions. “She’s not Jewish, is she?” “No dad.” “You are just friends?” “Actually, I am glad you asked. I think she may be the one.”

The older man’s eyes dimmed, and the son could see that there were issues for his father. He tried to put his dad’s mind at ease. “I know, Dad. You and mom came here so we could be free to live as Jews. And you are concerned that Lakota is not Jewish. But I swear to you dad. We have discussed this. And she is totally cool with raising our children as Jews.” Being from the old country, however, his father would settle for nothing less than full conversion.

And so it was, when the son called a few weeks after seder to announce that he and Lakota were getting married, that like many of his generation, the father hung up the phone, tore his clothes in pain and loss, and started to say kaddish for the son who was now dead to him. A few months later, the son called when they returned from their honeymoon in Israel, to share with his mother. But his father still wouldn’t speak to him. A few months later, he called again, to share the good news that Lakota was pregnant. Still nothing from his father. When he called to say that the baby, a boy, had been born, and was healthy, and had been circumcised, his mom was ecstatic. His father still said nothing. Not even his wife’s pleading with him could change things. “But Leo,” she chided him, “David tells me they even agreed on a Jewish name!” Still nothing.

It wasn’t until Lakota called a few months later, and told her mother-in-law that her conversion had just been completed, that the old man finally relented and agreed to travel to see his only grandson. When his parents arrived, the son could hardly wait, he was so proud and happy. “Mom, Dad,” he began, “I’d like you to meet your grandson – Whitefish!”

A silly story, to be sure, but one which speaks volumes to us on this night. We welcome back our young adults, on this Reunion Shabbat, as we do every year. As a community, like their parents, we are always glad to see our young people maintain a connection with us, and with the organized Jewish community. We may not live in the world of my opening joke anymore – parents do not say kaddish when their children intermarry – we don’t even refer to it as “marrying out” anymore. But the truth is, we are all still partners in this business of Jewish continuity and survival. Even as we have grown to recognize that intermarriage is NOT the opposite of Jewish survival, in fact, in many cases it can make the Jewish identity stronger by making it more of a constant issue, we continue to work with our own children, and with all of the young adults of our community, to do all that we can to maintain the strength of THEIR Jewish identity, so, regardless of who, or even IF, they marry, they will still raise up children who are as strong, or even stronger, in THEIR Jewish identity in the next generation.

Gone are the days when all of our children and grandchildren had easily recognized Jewish first names – like Sarah or David – or even last names for that matter! Gone are the days when a walk through our religious school, or a scan of our sanctuary at worship, revealed a monolithic, Caucasian skinned community. And I honestly believe that diversity and variety make us stronger – because they force us to dig deeper to recognize what unites us as Jews, rather than settling for mere surface similarities.

It is the history we share, the values we share, a world view that truly DOES still distinguish us in many ways from our neighbors. It is celebrating this coming week, and not a month from now; praying tonight and not on Sunday. It is caring about our brothers and sisters in lands near and far, and the fate of the modern state of Israel. But it is also the foods we eat, and how we eat them; the stories we tell, and how we tell them. In short, it is the way we look at the world, and how we see our place in it.

As we celebrated Thanksgiving last night, with families and friends, I hope THAT is one of the things that we all, at least in our hearts, gave thanks for. I know I did!

For those of us who started our Thanksgiving celebration on Wednesday evening as part of the larger Bowie community, at the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service, we were reminded again of what an amazing time and place we live in – with all its blessings and challenges. To be free and welcomed to participate at CCPC with the rest of the community. To have so many non-Jews comment on how they missed the sound of the shofar, because some dumb Rabbi never looked at the last page of the service and arranged to have Leon bring his! To be reminded that, for all that makes us different from the majority of those around us, there is still so much more that we share in common with them, for which we must also give thanks.

But most of all, we, especially, were challenged by the words of our speaker. Gustavo Torres, an immigrant from Guatemala, and the executive director of a group called CASA de Maryland, a leading Latino and immigrant advocacy group, spoke passionately about the challenges of working for immigrant rights in our ever fracturing society. His stories about violence directed at immigrants – both naturalized citizens AND those who are here without proper authorizing documents – were eerily reminiscent of the stories of those who worked for equal rights in the South in the 1960s.

His words reminded all of us gathered together that the issue of immigrant rights is a significant one for millions of people living in this country today. And, because of a failed, and at times non-existent, policy over the last 20 years or more in policing our borders effectively, and documenting new arrivals, we as Americans have failed our most recently arrived neighbors.

The issue of illegal immigration is a toxic time bomb that is lit in our country, waiting to explode. It is, in many significant ways, every bit as divisive in our time as the issue of slavery was in its day. We have already seen one state, Arizona, take action on its own because of its perception that our national effort is not working, and harming the citizen of that border state in particular. And they are not wrong in that assessment! We have seen local jurisdictions, even in our own area, move to allow action without cause to check a suspected illegal immigrant’s status. This is no different than the “states’ right” argument that Southerners claimed was the real reason for the Civil War.

And more and more, as we have seen our country divide politically into “red” and “blue” states, rhetoric has replaced ideology, sound byte pandering to the masses has replaced public policy debate based in realistic understanding of the enormity and complexity of the issues that need to be fixed. Those who feel that they “have” in this country are being joined by those who feel that they are being deprived of having by nebulously defined “others” in a partnership that threatens to make the economic class divide every bit the seismic disaster that race was in the mid-19th century, when it led us to war with each other.

All of which leaves those who are new to this country as the pawns in a horrendous game of human chess. Their real stories and struggles forgotten, they are turned into symbols. We, many of whom are still fortunate enough to remember hearing the stories of OUR immigrant ancestors, first-hand, in our youth, have a debt to pay forward by making sure that this country -- in which we may not always have been welcomed with open arms, but were tolerated, and allowed to thrive as rarely before in our people’s long history -- remembers that the ONLY ones among us who were not once immigrants in our collective national past were those like Lakota whom we now call “Native Americans.” And we have forced most of THEM onto reservations, paying them off by allowing them to run casinos!

The haves among us, and those who fear “others” for being different, and blame their not having on those different others, were once, themselves, just as we were, just as these new immigrants are today, the new and different Americans. They would not be where they are today, and neither would we, if others had done what is too often proposed in the current debate – returning the undocumented to their countries of origin, and forcing everyone who wants to come to do so “legally.”

Was it “legal” when ship companies crammed our ancestors beyond what was safe into the holds of ships, extorting what they could get for tickets of passage? Was it “legal” for our ancestors to be turned away because Uncle Hymie had promised them a job in the family shirt factory before they arrived? Was it “legal” to lock underaged workers, desperate to support their families in their new homes, where they sometimes lived 10 and 11 in a 2 room apartment, in sweatshops for 12 – 16 hour shifts without breaks for food, water, or bathroom usage? At times, those behaviors were both legal, and the norm. But were they ethical? I think we would all agree that clearly they are not. And eventually, all of those behaviors were forced to change because people spoke out in defense of those who were disenfranchised and adversely impacted by such laws and behaviors.

We often hear the argument “Yes, my ancestors were all immigrants. But, they all came legally. Why can’t these people just follow the law?” Historical note – for those of us whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1917, at the height of that wave of immigration, most of them had to break at least one law, in some country, to get here. Many left their countries of origin without permission, and carried no identity papers whatsoever! Because they were coming across the ocean, on ships run by companies that abided by US government regulations, to a limited number of viable entry ports, each of which had government employees waiting to process them, our ancestors were “legal” when they entered. They were properly recognized by our government.

The vast majority of those who have come to our country and are currently classified as “illegal immigrants” are so because, seeking to escape circumstances as bad or worse than those faced by our ancestors, they have taken equally or more desperate measures. Those coming from Mexico and Central America walk across the borders, or allow themselves to be brought in by those who promise them entry and protection. In large part because of OUR failures of policy today, those offering what our ancestors received on arrival to the New World to today’s immigrants are private agents, racketeers, smugglers, and traffickers. Those who come from Africa and Asia are more often than not trafficked as slaves every bit as much as 200 years ago.

In other words, the first step to solving the so-called “immigrant problem” in this country must be to find a way to stop victimizing further those who are already victims! To find ways to allow those who have done nothing to lose the right to be here worse than staying too long or trusting the wrong person to bring them here, those who have taken nothing away from our society but added to it by their presence, to stay here and become “legalized.” Then we need to develop a cogent and workable immigration policy, and an effective way of policing our borders, to stop the illegal importation of human beings! A policy that is a realistic, caring, and appropriate response to the needs of those who are already here legally, those who wish to be legal, but are not yet, and those who wish to come here legally and be welcomed.

Only then will the immigrant experience again become the stuff of the stories our families tell l’dor vador – from generation to generation. And, if you think this is a new phenomenon, let me share this story of my great-grandfather, Abraham Weisman. He came to this country, technically legally, by himself, as a teenager. He came alone, with another family shepherding him, and providing him a home when he arrived to New York. Sounds to me like today, many might see him as an illegal immigrant, for tagging along with a family not his own, and effectively claiming to be one of them!

But it gets better! When he chafed at the oppressive rules in his new “family’s” home, he bolted. Ran to the border – on foot and by train, and headed into Canada. To my knowledge, he never bothered to seek Canadian citizenship until perhaps MUCH later. In other words, he went north, illegally, across the wide land border, with no intention of coming back! A century before it became a common usage, my great grandfather was an illegal alien!

Friends – I share this with you tonight because it is fresh in my mind, and in the minds of those who participated in the Thanksgiving service on Wednesday night. I share it with you, because it is an issue that we, as Americans, can no longer afford to ignore; and as Jews, cannot allow to continue to play out as it has. I share it with you, because, as we gave thanks with our immigrant families just yesterday, we have a responsibility to help these new immigrants gain the chance that we were given as newcomers tonight.

I share it with you tonight, as we read the beginnings of the story of Joseph – as he himself got trafficked into Egypt, and became an illegal immigrant himself. We know the outcome of HIS sojourn was the beginning of our people’s 400 years in exile, as immigrants, in Egypt. We know that their departure is the centerpiece of the story of Passover, whose ethical message to us down through the generations, is that we must always take care to acknowledge the needs of those who are not native to our people, but leaving with us, BECAUSE we are sojourners in Egypt.

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I have the political savvy to figure out what is possible in our current climate. I only pray that we are not too late in pushing the debate and discussion to the front burner it needs to occupy, and that the needs of political expediency do not sink the very necessary act of fixing a system that is desperately broken and failing us all. We may not be Reuben or Judah, who acted to enslave Joseph in Egypt – but we are certainly as guilty as the other 8 brothers who stood by and let their emotions and their own needs blind them to the wrong they were witnessing, and by their silence covering up. And I, for one, cannot live with that responsibility any longer! KYR

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