“Refugee” – My Rosh haShanah morning sermon

          Here are two “jokes” that circulated after World War II.

A Viennese Jew entered the office of a travel bureau and said to one of the clerks, “I want a steamship ticket.”

Where to?” asked the clerk.

“Where to? Yes, where to?” repeated the Jew meditatively. “I wish I could answer this question. Let me look at your globe, if you don’t mind.”

Thereupon the Jew turned the globe around several times, studying carefully countries and continents. After a few minutes, he raised his eyes to the clerk and said, “Pardon me, got anything else?”

Felix Mendelsohn, Let Laughter Ring (Philadelphia, 1946; orig. pub. 1941), 135-136.

A harassed attaché of the American Consulate at Lisbon told the story of a gray-faced little man who leaned over his desk one morning and anxiously inquired: “Can you tell me if there is any possibility, I could get entrance to your wonderful country?”

The attaché pressed by thousands of such requests and haggard from sleepless nights, roughly replied: “Impossible now. Come back in another ten years.”

The little refugee moved toward the door, stopped, turned and, with a wan smile, asked, “Morning or afternoon?”

Bennet Cerf, Pocket Book of War Humor (New York, 1943), 181

          We do not have an immigration challenge at our southern border; we have a refugee challenge. Part of the problem is that we even call it an immigration crisis. That’s looking at it from the wrong side of the issue and of the border. Immigration is about the reception of emigrants, the rescuing of refugees. Those whose happenstance of birth ||| places them within a sovereign state, look at what happens at their border as something concerning immigration. Those who are struggling to reach the safety of a place like the United States, don’t have the luxury of seeing themselves as immigrants. Until they step foot here, they are still emigrants – seeking refuge, seeking asylum. These people left their home country in order to go somewhere else. The choice to leave is not their own in the sense that circumstances that surround them force them to make that choice. The moment they left their homelands to seek safety, they were refugees.

          Of all the peoples on the planet, the Jewish people have good reason to see ourselves as involuntary refugee experts, as illustrated by the two stories with which I began. Even more, the Torah indicates that our refugee status is essentially inherent if not genetic.

        We have no idea why our patriarch Avram, who would later be called Avraham, Abraham, left his “land, his birthplace and his father’s house” and venture forth to a land that he hoped he would somehow find. In fact, it wasn’t even his journey to begin with. His father, Terach, began the journey. We don’t know what motivated Terach to pick up his family and move from the relative comfort and stability of the Sumarian City of Ur. Travel in those days was dangerous and physically trying. One had to way the pros and cons very carefully. Clearly something happened that spurred Terach into action. Was it a drought or flood? Was it an economic or societal calamity? Perhaps, as some commentaries posit, it wasn’t Abraham, who first received what he felt was a divine call, it was Terach. Terach died along the way and Abraham continued the trek, but only after he felt as though he was divinely instructed. Besides that message, did Abraham have another reason to continue his father’s mission? Was there danger back in Ur, overt or covert, known or unknown, something already experienced or lying in wait? Even if he felt as though he received a “text” from God, he could have ignored it. What was going on? Here’s what the Torah says:

“Avram [as he was called at that point] took his wife, Sarai [she would later have her name changed, too] his brother’s son, Lot, all the possessions they had amassed, and the people they had acquired… They set forth for…and (later) arrived in the land of Canaan. Avram then passed over the land as far as the sacred site of Shechem, as far as the Oak of Moreh…” Genesis 12:5-6

          Later in the story, we learn that Abraham’s status follows him around now as a label, he is called “ha-Ivri”, the “one who passes over”. We are his descendants. We are Ivrim.

          Abraham is not called a palit, Hebrew’s actual word for “refugee”.  Palit is expanded from the root p-a-l-a-t, which means to discharge or to vomit. A bit more pleasantly, it can also mean escape. In other forms, the direction of the word’s intent is inverted, and it means to “save” or “rescue”. Abraham, the “one who passes over,” isn’t considered to be escaping in the lands he is traversing, and he wasn’t exactly given refuge. He’s not even passing through. The passer over, the Ivri, the Hebrew, doesn’t even touch the ground. According those whose land he is “passing over”, he was spewed out whence he came.

          So, who’s at our Southern border now, p’litim or Ivrim, refugees or “passers over”? The Administration wants to see them only as the latter, people who are “passing over”, not touching the ground, people who were vomited out – or caused themselves to be.

Which, of course, brings me to Stephen Miller, who seems to give me sermons one year after another. Thanks to you, Mr. Miller, my new title is “The Childhood Rabbi of…”. Thanks to your policies, Mr. Miller, thousands of people are being warehoused on both sides of the border with Mexico, languishing as they wait for their asylum cases to come up, which may take years because it’s not on your priority list to expedite those cases so that, one way or the other, those poor people in “nowhere and no one” status can be released from those concentration camps. Yes, Mr. Miller, they are “concentration camps”. Here’s the definition of such places from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.” The museum goes on to distinguish between concentration camps and a prison in that the camp “functions outside of a judicial system. The prisoners are not indicted or convicted of any crime by judicial process.” That doesn’t leave you much wiggle room to deny that these really are concentration camps. Does it?

          OK, Mr. Miller, let me state what has happened since I tried to get your attention last year. I really want to make sure I’m getting this right. If someone arrives at our border saying they are refugees, you cage them, kids, too. You prefer to cage them in Mexico so it’s not really “our” concern. Those people, who are the victims of physical, emotional, political and societal violence in another country and are fleeing here for safety, sometimes to literally save their lives, don’t get any help from us. But I, who just by happenstance was born here, I have the right to seek protection from gangs or unjust detainment or xenophobia or anti-Semitism or bias in public places or government-run institutions. I didn’t do anything to earn that status. It’s the result of my grandparents not remaining in Europe, getting my family here and having been fortunate enough to be allowed in, the same being true for many who sit here in this congregation today. Did I get that right?

          Someone who’s born in another country and has the chutzpah to try to get into this one, will have their children taken from them as punishment for even trying to come here and claim to be a refugee. Yes, Mr. Miller, we know you are still separating families. They can’t stay unless they can get specific about why their life or lives are in danger if they were sent back. My grandparents couldn’t have done that. They wouldn’t have been able to predict a pogrom hitting their town or, that decades later, they would be rounded up for extermination.

          Oh, and because of a very recent Supreme court decision, people who want to come here, have to first go somewhere they’d rather not be, where the gang situation, or the corruption level of the government or the economy isn’t much better there than where they came from and they must get rejected from that country before they can apply to come here?

          Here’s a policy you supposedly completely reversed recently, but only after major outcry from the media, the public and the Congress. Your policy was in place for about a month, but it was a harrowing month for many sick children and their families. Your policy said that if I was lucky enough to be brought to this country to help me fight a rare disease and perhaps even help come up with a cure that ends up being FDA approved for others, that I had 33 days to get out, even if that expulsion would be lethal for me. Or, if I had a disease that’s not so rare, perhaps cancer that inhabited and attacked my body after I was already here, perhaps as a DACA kid or while my status was being determined and I was already receiving treatment without which I might die, I would have had to leave, too. Or if a family was desperate to get their child here to save her life, because the kind of treatment she needs isn’t available in her home country, under your now forcibly defunct policy, she would have first had to be rejected and ordered for deportation, which she and her family could have then appealed, for months or years. I can only pray that in your heart-of-hearts, you, too, along with an outraged country, realized that this policy was cruel and immoral.

        Here’s the Jewish part, Mr. Miller. Your great, great grandfather, Wolf Lee Glosser, came to this country in 1903 fleeing pogroms and poverty – he had $8 in his pocket and he spoke no English. He was fortunate because, at the time, the United States had no official definition of a refugee. That only came to be after World War II, and it focused on the refugee being able to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Your lucky your great-great grandfather was prescient enough to sneak in before he had to prove that, Mr. Miller. Otherwise you might be trying to get across the Southern border, yourself, right now. On the other hand, you might not exist at all.

          How would you want them to treat you at the border, Mr. Miller? As a palit, a refugee, or as an Ivri, one who’s merely passing over. Would you want them to hold your feet to the fire to see if you could prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” or would you want them to believe you. Here’s what you’d get now, Mr. Miller, they won’t even let you touch the ground. Just keep walking, Mr. Miller, see if somewhere else will take you in.

          Your childhood rabbi is praying for you. I pray with the Breah-of-All that you and others who espouse hate in order to fuel their power, feel, instead, Teshuva, the Turning, so that they find love. May that be a love filled with compassion, from hearts that can bridge fear. I pray with the Breath-of-All that those in the current Administration look beneath the color of skin and language and culture to deconstruct the walls around their souls so that they stop caging children. I pray for empathy to overwhelm what some consider privilege. I pray for all of us to do justice and find mercy for ourselves and for those who are lonely, without family or home.

          And I pray, before and within the Oneness-of-All, for a vision of peace – peace so strong, so mighty and so powerful, Mr. Miller, that you finally hear our song of peace. Let that song reverberate in your soul and in the souls of those like you so that you join us as we make the world whole.

          In the meantime, we will sing, march, sign petitions, send emails, make phone calls and…vote to ensure that the message of Beth Shir Shalom, the Home of the Song of Peace, is heard from Santa Monica all the way to the White House.

“Nurse” – My Rosh haShanah Eve Sermon

My first year of rabbinical school was spent in Israel. It was 1973 and we were an eclectic bunch. We came from all kinds of Jewish, philosophical and academic backgrounds. We went through the Yom Kippur War together and honed our skills of support and empathy because we were all nervous about what would happen next while we were there. One of my friends during that time was Mark Mahler who was few years older than I and sort of a big brother figure. During the war and after, many a Shabbat meal was held at his apartment that he shared with his later to be wife, Alice. We created a bright space in their home, surrounded by the darkness of the war and its aftermath. The maturity of their relationship created a cocoon of safety and warmth for us. We became family.

As a result it wasn’t much of a surprise to me when I put two-and-two together and realized the “Jewish Emergency Room nurse” who treated the wounded Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting when he was brought to the hospital, was my old friend’s son. Leave it to Mark and Alice to help nurture a human who could rise to the emotional, medical, physical and moral needs of that moment.

Ari Mahler shared his experience in an online news outlet called “News and Guts”. In the article, he writes that he felt very alone in the days following the shooting. He knew others were writing and speaking about him and assuming things about him and his Jewish identity because of what he was…required to do? his job to do? willing to do? paid to do? had to do? compelled to do? commanded to do?

Nurse Mahler recalls that his soon-to-be patient shouted “Death to all Jews” as he was wheeled into the building. You can’t have that ringing in your ears and not have at least some questions, perhaps even misgivings about what will ensue. As he tells his story, Ari Mahler shares with us what he wants us to understand about him as a person, a nurse, a Jew and as an “RK”, a rabbi’s kid.

Ari tells us that the requirements of his job are “compassion and empathy over everything”. He surmises that the fact that he did the job the way he did it was newsworthy “…because [he’s] Jewish. Even more so because [his] dad’s a Rabbi.” On the other hand, Ari also says that when people find out he’s Jewish and that his dad’s a rabbi he tells them, “I’m not that religious” which he feels is like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you.” Sort of seems like a contradiction in terms.

Let me tell you a story. I once was asked to fill in officiating a funeral by a colleague of mine who was ill. The rabbi and the deceased were personal friends so I called the my colleague to have him tell me about the gentleman we were remembering. The man used to attend the rabbi’s Passover seder every year and every year he would enjoy it so much! He enjoyed all the rituals, all the prayers – each word of the story. And…every year, the rabbi would say to him, “Come on! You love the Seder so much. Each year you come here and it’s so meaningful to you. You should come to synagogue. You should come to my classes. You should participate in being Jewish.” And…every year, the man would shrug, his shoulders and throw down his hand and say, “Nah. Not so much. It’s really not my thing.” Both my colleague and I were confused by what seem to be a contradiction in this man’s perspective. He LOVED Pesach! He ate it up. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the company. Maybe it was nostalgia. Still, other “Jewish” he didn’t want to do.

After I spoke with my colleague, I did more intake about the deceased – listening to his family and friends. They told me about how much they loved him…and why. One of the “why’s” about him turned out to be a “how”, that is, how he was in the world. He was very active in the community, putting his presence, energy and resources where his heart and mind were. He supported a host of liberal causes, working to put justice where it was absent and peace where there was strife. He never went to synagogue. He didn’t keep kosher or keep Shabbat. In fact, he had nothing to do with formal Judaism – except Pesach. So what was my answer to the seeming contradiction in this man’s life between his intense enjoyment of every component of a Passover Seder and the rest of his activities that were devoid of any Judaism at all? I themed his eulogy, “He Was Too Busy Being Jewish to Be Jewish”. In the ensuing years, it has not been infrequent that I have described others as “Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish.” In fact, I realize there’s a large number of such Jews, especially within the American context, who are not Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Renewal. They’re just Jewish – not by genetics (which is a misnomer, racist and even sexist) or because they “identify” is Jews. In fact, some of these people, depending on the circumstances, do not identify themselves as Jews, much like nurse Ari Mahler. They act Jewish. They behave Jewish. They do Jewish. They respond Jewish. For them, “Jewish” is not a label. It’s not a noun. “Jewish” a verb. In fact, by that definition, I know many non-Jews who, unaffiliated and unidentified with any religious tradition or institution, are “Jewish”, too.

Now, as a rabbi, would I like these people to come to synagogue more often? Would I like them to attend a class or two, find some meaning in Shabbat, holidays, holy days and keeping kosher? Would I like them to acknowledge that the values they espouse are rooted in centuries of Jewish debate among scholars and laypeople to determine what a Jewish reply is to a given personal, communal, national or global situation? Would I like them to discover that we can actually trace those discussions and lift out texts that strengthen these values because they are deep in our tradition and have the wisdom of millennia of practical application within them and that Jews who are “Too-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” are not setting a precedent but standing on a venerable foundation of moral and ethical choices by millions of Jews before them? Would I like “Too-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” Jews to realize that what happens in the sanctuary or within the walls of Barnum Hall is virtual prayer? That such prayer and ritual are only intended to inspire, to model, to speak in eloquent metaphor, to help us find and keep our moral compass – so that we engage in real prayer and real ritual when we leave the place we call or utilize as a sanctuary? Yes. An enormous “yes” to all my rhetorical questions.

It is amazing the way nurse Ari Mahler, who will always be known as “The Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers” wrote about his experience. Ari recounts that when he grew up in Pittsburgh “it was a different time”. He remembers that he “found drawings on (school) desks of [his] family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on [his] locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, ‘Die Jew. Love, Hitler.’” Partially because of his childhood traumas, Ari was not surprised that the mass killing at Tree of Life synagogue took place and is downright cynical about feeling that anything will change. He writes, “it’s only a matter of time before the next one happens. History refutes hope that things will change. My heart yearns for change, but today’s climate doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility. Even before this shooting took place, there’s no real evidence supporting otherwise. The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the U.S. population, yet 60% of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.”

Nurse Ari displayed remarkable courage when he took care of Robert Bowers and was courageous again when he revealed this part of himself to the world. Here is Ari’s response to those who tried to determine why he did what he did. “I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you? Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

The film, “The Quarrel”, which I always show to my Introduction to Judaism class for the session on the Holocaust, takes place in 1948 Montreal on Rosh haShanah. Early in the film we meet Chaim Kovler, a secularist Yiddish writer who, because of the traditional import of that day and several events that occur to him, has an internal spiritual debate.  Chaim escaped the Nazis and had lost his faith when he was in yeshivah. As he sits by a pond in a park watching Jews performing the Rosh haShanah afternoon ritual of tashlich, he suddenly sees an old friend whom he hasn’t seen since they learned and argued together long ago in Bialystok. The friend is Hersh Rasseyner, who survived Auschwitz and whose faith was strengthened by the ordeal. The two walk together, reminisce, and passionately continue their old quarrel, and their friendship. In what is for me one of the most beautiful exchanges in the script, Chaim tells the story about meeting an old Lithuanian atheist woman who risked her life to help Jews during the war. She did this, she says, because she believes in human beings and loves them. He says, “This is my faith, too, that people must help one another.”

Ari Mahler could have said that. All Jews should say that. Would it really be so bad if we whittled Judaism down to such basic notions – that “people must help one another,” and that “The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings.”? Jews don’t really do that, do they? Hillel the Elder said that the principle, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” expresses the essence of the entire Torah. The rest of Jewish law, he maintained, is commentary on that core idea. Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” might well be the central commandment of the Torah. Another commentator says that true reading of the phrase should be, “Love your neighbor who is yourself.” Perhaps you believe that God is in everything or believe that God is everything, then loving your neighbor and avoiding doing to your neighbor that which is abhorrent to you, is behaving that way to God.

For Jews who are “Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” the God stuff doesn’t matter. For them, behaving is believing. So, yes, I want you to participate with and belong to this synagogue. I want you to be inspired by our music, our words and our messages. I want you to study with us and learn the long and glowing history of how, despite all our persecutions and the near destruction our people, we maintained and acted out our values of tzedakah and Tikkun Olam. And that’s not enough. Even if it’s Shabbat and there’s an protest against our obscene immigration policies or a women’s march or a beach clean-up or school that needs painting that day, I want us to be the kind of Jews who will pray with our legs, feet, mouths and hearts and show up. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that transcend categories and labels. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that come from an internal sense of mandate. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that broadcast that our actions have Jewish roots. I want us to be Jewish in ways that demonstrate that despite our sufferings we refuse to treat others as we have too often been treated. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that exude love.

Do I want us to be Jews-Who-Are-Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-Too-Be-Jewish? I’m your rabbi! I believe in the power of Jewish ritual and holy moments like this gathering. I want us to be VERY Jewish. Yes, I want us to be Jews who are inspired by Jewish holidays and Holy Days, by the messages that they hold. And…I want us to be Jews who are busy being Jews in all the ways that create Tikkun, Tzedek, and Tzedakah, healing, justice and righteous giving. I want us to be Jews who by deed, prayer and heart live with love and compassion on this day and every day.