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Please click below for a copy of Rabbi Elliott's Rosh Hashanah sermon

09/25/2017 11:59:48 AM


Prepare me to be a Sanctuary Rosh Hashanah Day 1



Prepare Me To Be A Sanctuary

I am going to be talking today about immigration, but before I begin, I would like to do a survey.


Think for a moment about the story your family tells about coming to the US.

I realize this may be complicated.[i]


It might be many stories, each from a different branch of our family.

For many parts of this story is unknown, perhaps forgotten or even erased.


But for this survey just pick one story or the dominant story that you tell about your family’s path to America.


Raise your hand if your family came to the US before 1921?

Raise your hand if your family came to the US after 1921 but before 1965.

After 1965?


Coming to America legally through Ellis Island is the dominant narrative of Jewish immigration.


Until 1921 the US allowed relatively unrestricted immigration.


But after 1921 a system of quotas was implemented that drastically limited legal immigration.


This system was implemented to limit the entry of suspect nationalities: Italians, Poles, Slavs and Jews.


To give you an idea of the bias in those quotas – Great Britain and Ireland were allotted about 63,000 slots.

Russia was allotted only 2,000 slots.


These quotas cut immigration in half.


In 1921 120,000 Jews entered the US legally.

In 1924 after all the quotas had been instituted only 10,000 Jews entered the US legally.


This however did not stop Jews from coming illegally[ii].



Bnai Keshet member, Cythnia Green recently shared with me the story her grandfather Henry who came to US in the 30s.

One of eleven children,each of the boys had a different path westward to avoid the Polish draft.


After stops in Belgium and France unable to get a visa for immigration and looking for any opportunity to enter the US, he came instead on a tourist visa.

Like many other undocumented immigrants when his tourist visa expired he stayed put, trying to live below the radar.

He fell in love. He got married. He had a son.


One night immigration agents came into his home in New York and while his two-year-old son slept, arrested him.

Having over stayed his visa, neither his marriage nor his son protected him.

Having committed no crime other than living in the US without legal documentation

Henry was eventually deported in 1938 to Poland.[iii]


There are countless stories today similar Henry’s.

Stories of immigrants who have established families in the US but are threatened with deportation.

Stories of people seeking a safer life for themselves and their family but who cannot find a legal path to immigration.


In 2017 there has been a 38% increase in immigration arrests relative to 2016.


Different from practices under both the Bush and Obama presidencies these deportations are not focused primarily on violent criminals or security risks.


In 2017 there has been 150% increase in the rate “non-criminal” immigration arrests.[iv]


It is only because Henry Greene again tried to reenter the US through the backdoor that we know his story.

In 1938 he left Poland again, travelling to the Dominican Republic and was met there by his wife. They had a second wedding ceremony.

Because Henry was no longer illegally in the US, this marriage reopened the door allowing him to return to the US.


The story of Jewish settlement in the US is not typically told as part of the narrative of illegal immigration, but for many it was.


Even for those who came to the US by way of Ellis Island, most travelled here under precarious legal circumstances.


Almost all of my ancestors had to hire smugglers, illegally cross multiple borders and pay bribes just to get on ships heading for the US.


If your family came from Eastern Europe before 1921 it is unlikely that their entire journey was legal.


If your Jewish family came here after 1921 and before a loosening of immigration quotas in 1965 it is highly likely that all or part of their immigration was illegal.


Here are a few of the stories I have heard from Bnai Keshet members:


Joan Streit’s parents came to the US in the 1930’s along with dozens of other relatives from Germany, all with forged papers.


May Benatar’s father was smuggled on a ship from Cuba to Florida in the late 20’s.


Betsy Tessler’s grandfather originally entered the US illegally by crossing the Canadian border.


Elliana Goldberg’s parents came to the US as refugees in 1951 but had to lie about their involvement with Communist politics to be allowed entry.



Immigration has always been a part of the Jewish story.


Ivrim is the Hebrew word for Hebrews.

It is the name given to us by the Eyptians.


It is not an accident that is sounds like the word we use in our prayers for a transgression, avera.

Both share the root ayin, vet, resh.


A common translation for our name ivrim or Hebrews – is border crossers.

Commentators have long suggested that when the Egyptians called us ivrim it was derogatory and had a connotation of transgression similar to calling someone an “illegal”.


But the name Hebrews has served us well.


Our willingness to pursue safety regardless of borders

has been a critical to Jewish survival.


For the majority of Jewish history, wherever we resided, our legal status was precarious.


Our “welcome” was often conditional, unofficial and temporary.

We were invited into a region to fill holes in the labor market.

We lived with the potential of being expelled for political reasons or to fill coffers through the confiscation of our property.


Jews have survived, over and over again because of our willingness to seek safety regardless of laws or borders.


Theology of Immigration

Think for a moment about the theological significance of God’s first commandment to the first Jew, to Abraham, that he leave his land of origin, his father’s land and travel to a new land.


Why couldn’t Abraham, the Jewish story, have begun in Ur of Chaldees, his land of origin?


Or why couldn’t the story of Abraham just begin in Canaan?


Think about how Abraham’s world-view must have broadened by leaving the land of his birth.


By having to live with people who’s culture was foreign to him?


How might his journey have solidified his understanding of God as one?


How might it have exposed cultural assumptions?

Uncovered universal truths?


How might the experience of being separated from his relatives have opened him to relationship with God?


Even after he got to the Land, he eventually was uprooted again, risking even God’s promise to seek shelter in Egypt and avoid famine.


In the Torah the word for immigrant is ger or stranger.

It is used to describe the people who dwell within the Israelite borders but who are not Israelites.


Where as the Egyptians called us Hebrews.

We called ourselves ger - strangers when recalling our time in Egypt.


We are commanded once to love our neighbor.

We are commanded twice to love God.


But the commandment to love the stranger is backed up at least 36 times.


The Torah is obsessed with the wellbeing of immigrants.


There must be something essential to be learned from being an immigrant, from crossing borders.


Perhaps it is the vulnerability immigrants experience?

Perhaps it is the perspective of being an outsider?

Perhaps it is the wisdom that comes from navigating through a foreign world?


The Torah offers a unique theology of immigration.

First, Torah teaches that the experience of immigration, whether “voluntary” like Abraham or “involuntary” like the Hebrews, is an important path to knowing God.


Then it teaches that loving the stranger is not only about fairness but also about increasing our proximity to God.


Finally, when we ourselves are not immigrants Torah commands us to get closer to this spiritual access point, by being close to immigrants. Loving the stranger.


Caring for the stranger is a path to finding God.


In Deuteronomy it says:

“Cut away, therefore the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For your God Adonai upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[v]


The spiritual path is summed up:

Simply quit being callous.

Open your hearts, let go of stubbornness and self-centered pride.

Look around you for those who are mistreated or in danger and help them.


Room for improvement

To say that American immigration policy is need of improvement is an understatement.


The last major immigration reform, which offered amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants was signed in 1986, by Ronald Reagan.


Over the past 30 years, through divided & united governments, through Democrat or Republican controlled Congresses there has been no significant immigration reform.


And the world has changed a lot since 1986.


The world is moving more and more toward free movement of capital, free markets and free trade;


Toward a world where ideas travel with increasingly little restriction across borders;


A world in which corporations are relatively free to choose the country with the lowest tax rate, or least restrictive regulations and call that place home;


It such a world, it seems to me an extreme contradiction that people are not free to follow these markets, to pursue work and ideas across borders, to choose the place they call home.


The assumption that borders are more sacred than people allows us to distance ourselves from the suffering of others.


A focus on tightening immigrations laws and securing borders allows us to imagine that the injustices and suffering in other places can be kept from impacting our lives. That they are not our responsibility.


But just like markets aren’t contained within countries, neither are conflicts.


We can’t continue to derive economic benefit from people in “far away” countries while ignoring their political upheaval, poverty and oppression. 


The refugee and immigration crises of our time expose the limits of this thinking.


Just like Jews have done historical, people who are in danger, whether political or economic, will seek safety.


They will take great risks to assure a better life for their children.


And like water, they will find the cracks in any wall.


In a world where nearly every purchase we make is international.

Where we have steady access to goods created by low cost labor in conditions that would be illegal in the US.


In a world where we benefit from a concentration of wealth within our own country’s borders, I believe there are two moral paths.


One path, would be to use our wealth to massively invest in aid to developing governments, diplomacy and global cooperation.

To assure that wherever people live they have a measure of basic economic security, human rights and access to just governmental representation.


The other path is to work increasingly to open borders allowing people to vote with their feet, which systems of government and which economies offer justice, safety and opportunity.


There is little evidence that we are moving closer to either of these paths.




For What Purpose

Many of us are living lives that are the fulfillment of our parent’s, grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s risks & sacrifices.  


Our freedom, prosperity, safety, and in many cases our existence – came about because a previous generation took the risk in a moment of uncertainty, to come here.


I have thought often about the risks my grandfather Eddie & great aunt Sophie took to leave Ukraine at 13 & 15. About the courage and fear that their parents must have felt sending them the money to make this risky journey by themselves.


Think for a moment about the risks and the sacrifices that were made by your ancestors so that you might sit here right now.


For what purpose did they take this risk?


What risks and sacrifices might be required of us in this moment of relative security?


This is one way of understanding the core question of Rosh Hashanah.


Have we lived up to all the risks, sacrifices and courageous life that preceded us and allowed us to reach this moment?


What more should we be doing in our short lives to live up to all that came before us?


It is not only that the Torah commands us repeatedly to protect the stranger, but also that our own ears are especially attuned to hear this commandment.


As Jews living in America today our history and our relative security make us uniquely positioned to respond to the experiences of refugees and immigrants.


The stories of undocumented immigrants in the United States today are remarkably similar to our own.


Like Jews, they have fled violent circumstances, fled unstable and sometimes corrupt governments.


Like our ancestors their poverty has required them to be resourceful.


The undocumented immigrants living in the US, have like us, been willing to take great risks to protect the future of their families.


Like Jews before them, when official doors were closed they looked for alternative paths to find security.


It has been widely reported that the current administration will announce a cap of 50,000 refugees to be admitted to the US in 2018.


This would be the lowest number ever set since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. This in the face of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.


But our work should not just be limited to expanding the number of refugees allowed entry into the US.


We need to be advocating on behalf of immigrants already here in the US who are being threatened with deportation.


It is tempting but false to imagine that there is some meaningful line that can be drawn between clearly oppressed refugees and less deserving immigrants.


We need to work to help realize a rational system of immigration that strives for maximal opportunity for all people.


This is the work we need to do, but after so many decades of failed attempts, after a year of demonizing immigrants whether from the Middle East or from Central America, I am not hopeful that this is the moment we will succeed in realizing an expansive vision.


Sanctuary Movement

But, we can succeed at buying time, at slowing down the process of arrests and deportations of immigrants.


There are a growing number of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that are offering sanctuary to individuals fearing deportation.


Offering sanctuary is not a special legal status nor does it require breaking the law.


There is no legal loophole that allows congregations to offer special protections to undocumented immigrants.


Rather there is a long-standing policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, to avoid arrests on congregational property.


In some cases sanctuary buys time for the individual to seek a deferment or another resolution that will allow them to maintain their residency.

Sometimes the public attention itself seems to open up new possibilities.



When Is A Law Unjust

I want to take a moment to address the question of law.

I trust there are some lawyers among us.


Jews despite our history as border crossers tend to support the rule of law.


There is a rabbinic teaching dina demalchuta dina, a halachic principle that guides us to follow the laws of country we resided in, sometimes over Jewish law.


It has been argued by some that undocumented immigrants, just by being here, have broken the law and that this alone should be reason enough for their deportation.


The question has also been raised, how do we decide which laws we support and which laws we resist or perhaps even break.


I will offer the following as a starting point for this conversation.


Laws that discriminate, laws that put human life in danger and laws that degrade our humanity are worthy of our scrutiny, and quite likely should be resisted.


The current system of deporting undocumented immigrants is carried out in a discriminatory way that often targets people of color.


It deports people facing meaningful danger in their country of origin.

It erodes human dignity by incarcerating individuals for years before deportation and by tearing apart families.


The sanctuary movement is one of those rare opportunities, when one action to defend individual dignity can have profound public impact.


Like Rosa Parks refusing to participate in segregated bussing.

Or like students in Mississippi trying to register black voters.


But unlike those actions, carried out by individuals and groups, becoming a sanctuary is something we can only do as a synagogue.


We Are A Sanctuary

I am proud that the Board of Bnai Keshet voted unanimously last week to declare Bnai Keshet a sanctuary congregation.  


It should be noted that while there was considerable unanimity that this declaration is line with our community values, there was also strong concern that we take action in a way that preserves and protects our commitment to all the core values of this community.  


And I am proud to say we aren’t the only synagogue in America who has made this choice nor the only congregation in NJ.


I am happy that the Board could take this step knowing that many congregations in the area have pledged their support.


As more and more congregations offer sanctuary this act of welcome has the power to change the framework within which immigration is discussed


From danger to welcome

From risk to opportunity

From compliance to obligation

From scarcity to gratitude.


We are a synagogue community that is good at acting with compassion.

The Sanctuary Movement is an opportunity for us to amplify that compassion publicly.


The power of the Sanctuary Movement is driven by the moral authority that comes from acting compassionately.


There has never been a case of the US justice department bringing charges against a congregation for offering to house an undocumented immigrant.


The longstanding policy of ICE to not arrest immigrants on the property of churches, synagogues or mosques is a clue that these arrests might not only look unjust – but might indeed be unjust.


Amanda Morales Guerra fled Guatemala in 2004.

She was fleeing violent threats including the threat of kidnapping from a military faction that had wanted to recruit one of her brothers.


She is 33 and the mother of 3 children all US citizens.


For many years she has been checking in regularly with ICE.


But last month she was told that when she next showed up she should come with a one way ticket back to Guatemala.


Still fearing a return to the instability of Guatemala she chose instead to accept the offer of sanctuary extended to her and her children by Holyrood Episcopal Church in New York.[vi] 


Abraham was not only the first immigrant in the Torah but also the first host.


It should be noted that immediately following Abraham’s choice to welcome strangers into his tent he receives blessing and the promise that Sarah will give birth to Isaac.   


The strangers he welcomes into his tent are transformed into messengers, into angels.


Embodied practice

When we take action that brings us into new neighborhoods, actions that change our environment, that invite relationships with strangers, people we might not have otherwise met we are transformed in ways that could not happen, no matter how well-intentioned we may be, from an intellectual distance.


A few years ago I visited Ghana.

Before I ever met children who had been enslaved, I knew I opposed slavery.

But travelling to Ghana and meeting those children transformed this knowledge into heartfelt commitment to fight human trafficking and the poverty that invites it.


AJWS invited me to Ghana not because it was an efficient way to build a school for children freed from slavery, but rather as an efficient way to transform my heart.

They understood that sending me physically to Africa would change my public engagement in America.


This also happened when we observed Tisha B’av at the Elizabeth Detention Center.

Praying outside its doors, expanded our understanding of what it means to be detained for months or years of one’s life awaiting deportation.

It revived our memory of what it has meant in previous generations to not have legal status, to be vulnerable.


This transformation happens when we invite the homeless into our building with IHN, when we feed the hungry with MESH, when we help build homes in Paterson.


If we host an individual seeking sanctuary, it will transform our understanding of the issues related to immigration.

It will concretize the challenges faced by the undocumented.

It will help to reset our thinking about what a good immigration policy would look like in ways that we cannot predict.



We can’t know whether opening the doors of our congregation as a sanctuary to an individual or family, facing deportation will transform immigration policy.


But we can trust that becoming a sanctuary congregation will transform us.


I look forward to seeing this transformational journey unfolds with you.





[i] This is particularly true for people who are adopted or for individuals whose ancestors were slaves and came here against their will.

[ii] After The Closed The Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965, by Libby Garland. 

[iii] When Henry Green received his citizenship – he didn’t stop looking for ways to bring his family to the US. One of the family members he helped to bring was his nephew Harold Greene who immediately served in WWII helping with counter intelligence. He later worked in the Kennedy administration to help draft Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Who served as a federal judge and delivered the AT&T anti-Trust ruling.  And it goes without saying that had the safe entry of Henry Green to the US only brought his grand-daughter Cynthia, that itself would have been a blessing. 

[v] (Deut. 10:16-19)

Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784