“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.

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