Responding as Hebrews to Refugees
There may be no more indelible ethical mandate in Judaism than to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In today's world, the most vulnerable strangers who need our help are refugees, and the current administration's shameful abandonment of our moral responsibility demands a Jewish response.
Responding as Hebrews to Refugees
Abruptly, God calls to Abram. “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). And abruptly, Abram goes. “So Abram went forth as the Eternal had told him. … Abram took his wife Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, all the possessions they had amassed, and the people they had acquired in Charan. They set forth for the land of Canaan, and they arrived in the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:4-5).
In classic biblical syntax, Abram’s actions are described as a triad:וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם ... וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן, “And Abram went … and they set out to go to the land of Canaan, and they arrived at the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:4-5). But then, we read a surprising fourth action, which seems to crown all the rest: וַיַּעֲבֹר אַבְרָם בָּאָרֶץ, “And Abram crossed into the land” (Gen. 12:6). Why is this fourth action, this account of boundary-crossing, the completion of Abram’s journey?
Perhaps it is because, a few chapters later (Gen. 14:13), we come to find that this act of passage forms the core of Abram’s identity. Abram is referred to as an עִבְרִי, as a boundary-crosser. Or, as it is more commonly translated, a Hebrew.
While most American Jews today don’t identify as “Hebrews,” it wasn’t too long ago that “Hebrew” was synonymous with “Jew.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Indeed, when given the chance to make such a change in 1946, 1973, and 1995, Reform Jews voted to retain the title “Hebrew.” To be a Hebrew, according to one midrash, is to “stand on one side while the entire rest of the world stands on another.”  For millennia, that is what it has meant to be a Jew: to be seen and to see oneself as at least partially foreign.
It is no wonder, then, that our people have historically remained committed to the protection of others who, like us, have come from somewhere else. Repeated again and again in our tradition is the commandment to treat strangers with fairness and dignity, for we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. Unique in the ancient world was the Israelite obligation to harbor escaped slaves, and unparalleled in American history has been the commitment of the Jewish community to the support of immigrants and refugees. And as we speak today, there is no more important time to reaffirm our support of these vulnerable people in the United States and around the world.
This week, congregations across the country are observing National Refugee Shabbat, reminding ourselves of the ethical implications of being Hebrews. Our community as well dedicates this Shabbat to the renewal of our commitment to work in behalf of refugees here and around the world.
Today’s refugee crisis is worse than any other time in human history. There are in the world today 25.4 million refugees, 40 million internally-displaced persons, and 3.1 million persons seeking asylum in a new country. To put those numbers in perspective, one in every 113 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 21st most populous, falling between Thailand and the United Kingdom. Or to put it another way: During the course of this service, violent conflict will have displaced 1800 people from their homes. This situation is a humanitarian catastrophe that affects the entire world; it’s not somebody else’s problem to solve.
Historically, the United States has been a leader in the resettlement of refugees. As a reminder, refugees are people who have fled from their home country and cannot return, and to be resettled here, they must successfully clear the most rigorous background check in America. Until recently, each year, approximately 1% of all refugees have been resettled in a foreign country, and the US has typically welcomed about half of this 1%. In gross numbers, we haven’t resettled all that many people, but the United States has generally led the world in this important humanitarian effort.
Critical to this process is the so-called “presidential determination.” Each year, the President of the Unites States announces the maximum number of refugees that can be resettled in the U.S. For more than a decade, the annual ceiling was set at 70,000. In 2016, the Obama administration raised the ceiling to 85,000 and resettled almost exactly that number during those twelve months. For 2017, the Obama administration raised the limit again, to 110,000. These increases were responses to the worldwide refugee crisis, in particular owing to the Syrian civil war, and they mirrored similar efforts throughout Europe and the Middle East.
However, in March of 2017, an executive order issued by the Trump Administration dropped the refugee ceiling to 50,000, and last year, the US actually resettled only two-thirds of this reduced threshold. In 2018, the maximum dropped again, and to date this year, we’ve resettled just under 21,000 people – less than half of the 45,000-person limit. Just last month, the Trump administration announced that the maximum resettlement number for 2019 would be 30,000, far and away the lowest number since the refugee resettlement program began in 1980. As the refugee crisis has worsened, our response has withered. We have turned our backs on those most in need, at the precise moment when they need us the most.
One of the leading refugee organizations in the United States, operating continually for more than a century, is the aptly-named Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known today simply as HIAS. It is one of the nine national agencies responsible for resettling every refugee in America, and it also sustains extensive operations in eleven other countries. Originally founded to help Jewish immigrants to America, HIAS was responsible for resettling millions of Jews into their permanent homes in this country. Today, the number of Jewish refugees in the world is, thankfully, close to zero, but HIAS persists in its mission. HIAS dedicates itself to the resettlement of vulnerable people of every race and background around the world. Still motivated by their Jewish roots, the common sentiment at HIAS is: “We used to help refugees because they were Jewish. Now we help refugees because we are Jewish.”
HIAS has been the primary organizer and leader of Jewish-American advocacy in support of refugee resettlement. Oak Park Temple is a proud member of the HIAS Welcome Campaign, which is a network of more than 400 congregations committed to educating about, advocating for, and giving support to refugees in the United States. In this capacity, our congregation has adopted and continues to support a refugee family resettled from Syria, and we have sustained ongoing advocacy efforts. We are heeding the unambiguous call of our tradition: “God loves the [vulnerable] stranger, providing them food and clothing. You, too, must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).
This isn’t always easy, on a personal or an organizational level. Just as it wasn’t easy for Abram to leave his homeland, and just as it’s never easy to stand for values and beliefs that most people don’t share, it’s not easy to push ourselves to work for foreign strangers whose backgrounds and intentions may remain a mystery to us.
Our tradition knows that commitment to such strangers is hard. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar the Great teaches: “Why does Torah warn 36 times—and some say 46 times—about [wronging] the stranger? Because wickedness is [part of] human nature” (Bava Metzia 59b). Eleazar knows the human heart – that our natural impulse is to look out for ourselves. And, he teaches, that’s precisely why we have the Torah, to inspire us to transcend our protectionist instincts and to help us realize our full human potential through the fulfillment of sacred moral obligations.
In many ways, it doesn’t make sense to open our arms to penniless strangers whose values and prejudices may threaten us. Uncertainty, and even fear, are normal. But the Torah insists that we face that fear, acknowledge it, and then move past it to do the right thing. We were slaves in need of rescue; now that we have the power to save others, it is our obligation to do so.
Jews in Chicago are preparing to act on this sacred obligation. Next weekend, on Sunday, October 28, HIAS is convening a Jews for Refugees Assembly. This is an opportunity to make our voice heard—to insist that the paltry number of refugees we’re admitting is not sufficient—and to learn how to get more informed or involved in refugee issues locally. Currently, ten Oak Park Temple members, including Cantor Green and myself, have registered for this important event. As cosponsors, our congregation made a commitment to bring at least fifteen individuals. So I hope that you’ll consider joining us next Sunday to help us make our statement loudly and firmly: We have not given up on our responsibility even if the national government has shamefully turned its back on those who are most in need. Information and sign-up sheets will be available immediately following services.
As soon as Abram arrives in Canaan, a famine breaks out. He and Sarai are forced to flee, seeking refuge in nearby Egypt. Already displaced once, they became so once again, relying on the kindness of a neighboring country to provide safe harbor. Even after the famine has passed, Abram and his household continue to roam, settling in various locations throughout the Promised Land. As we know, Abram’s children and grandchildren and the generations to follow would continue to wander, never remaining too long in a single place.
This is what it has meant to be a Hebrew, to be a person who passes through, who knows they come from somewhere else. Today, our roots are deep in America, but our memory of being a stranger goes even deeper. We are committed to protecting those who, like us, need a safe haven and a fresh start.
May we ever retain the strength to stand by our convictions, to overcome our fears, and to live up to the high calling of loving the stranger as we love ourselves.
 Genesis Rabbah 42:8: רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא [אברהם] מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד
 http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html (as of June 2018)
 Sentiment taken, with figures recalculated, from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2015/6/558193896/worldwide-displacement-hits-all-time-high-war-persecution-increase.html. Population figures from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_(United_Nations).
 HIAS changed its name, dropping the outdated “Hebrew,” in 2014. See here: http://jewishtimes.com/32667/alphabet-soup/news/national-news/.
 Cf. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/09/19/refugees-united-nations-conference-hias-jewish-human-rights-holocaust-column/90618892/.
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