Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz’s Remarks at the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz’s Remarks at the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance “Community Meeting at Vassar College on Nov. 6, 2017

By Rabbi Norman Hirsch
Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.

God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming.

These words, from the Reform Jewish liturgy, are an interpretation of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. In Genesis 12, Abram, ancestor to our three monotheistic faiths, is called to “Go forth from your country, from your birthplace, and from your ancestral house, to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Abram is promised both blessing and protection, and, without a word, he packs up his life, and leaves the only home he’s ever known.
This biblical scene relates to this community’s current moment in two ways. First, it shows us a human being who is called to change the course of his own life, and in his people’s history. Second, it is an instance in which a person is called to flee from one’s home, family, and birthplace to travel to an unknown land, and pursue the promise of a better life. We may not often think of it this way, but Abraham spent much of his life as a refugee, as did many of our biblical ancestors, from Adam and Eve to Ezra and Nehemia.
We, who believe ourselves to be the spiritual descendants of Abraham, are a part of three faith traditions that are deeply rooted in their empathy for the stranger. Legend has it that Abraham’s tent was open on all sides, so that weary travelers could find the entrance easily, no matter which direction they were coming from. This audacious hospitality didn’t end with Abraham. No fewer than 36 times, the Bible commands us to include, protect, support, and even love the stranger in our midst. This is because we are commanded to look out for all of those who are weak and vulnerable, but also because we “know the heart of the stranger,” having been strangers ourselves in the land of Egypt.
Our experience of fleeing famine in Canaan, enduring slavery in Egypt, and wandering in the wilderness, prepared us to live in a world where we would struggle to find a permanent home for ourselves. We know the heart of the stranger because of our spiritual ancestry, but also because we are direct descendants of people who made their home in America, after fleeing poverty and persecution all over the world. Many of us have experienced visceral pain in response to current rhetoric that vilifies the foreigner, because it was not long ago that we were under scrutiny ourselves.
This past June, our congregation screened a film about the S.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees from Germany, that was turned away from our shores in 1939. While none of the passengers were returned to Germany, nearly a quarter of those resettled in other European countries still perished in the Holocaust. The concerns of the U.S. government and the general public then are not that different from what we hear today: that these people will become a drain on our society, that they will carry diseases and toxic ideologies from their shores to ours, and that we need not involve ourselves in every global conflict.
But we know the price of apathy. We have all been victims of it. In the Jewish community, we are haunted by the refrain, “Never Again!” Never again will we allow a people to be decimated by war and persecution, never again will we stand idly by as refugees are turned away from our shores. This is our opportunity to live out those words. This is our moment. This is our call.
Like Abraham, we are being called to go forth, not from our physical homeland, but from the comfort of our everyday lives. We are being called to do the hard and holy work of welcoming the stranger: to answer the questions and address the concerns of our neighbors; to mobilize and organize those in our communities who want to contribute to this effort; and to really see, hear, and respond to the needs of the families that will make their home in this great country.
There are other moments in Abraham’s life where he responds to God’s call with Hineini: here I am, I am ready. But Abram doesn’t say a word. There would be a long journey ahead, with many challenges to face and questions to ask, but Abram shows he is ready by taking the first step. We are grateful to Maria Hoehn, Church World Service, and all of our beloved volunteers, for preparing us to take this first step in welcoming refugees into our community.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzvanu le’ehov et ha-ger.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through commandments, and commands us to love the stranger.

Use this link to get to the article on the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance

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