Last week, my family evacuated from Miami to Atlanta to escape Hurricane Irma. It was at times stressful and anxiety-producing and at times heartwarming and inspiring. But the one thing I will take away from the upheaval and uncertainty of the past week is that the word “refugee” most certainly did not apply to my family. All over social media, and even in Atlanta tourist sites, hotels and restaurants, we were referred to as “Miami Refugees” or “Florida Refugees.” I found myself spending a lot of time last week thinking about what it means to be an actual refugee and the many ways in which my privileges shielded me from “refugee” status during my first Florida hurricane evacuation. Without a doubt, it was traumatic to pack as news channels predicted a Category 5 direct hit on Miami. Sweating, nervous and jittery, I rushed to pack only essentials into our minivan before hitting the road, knowing full well that gas would be sparse and the highways a parking lot. With every passing hour, as my husband closed the hurricane shutters and I dragged everything from the backyard into our living room, we feared that we would not make it out in time and our family might be exposed to a life-threatening storm.
But as we drove away with wallets full of credits cards, cash and passports in a minivan stocked with healthy children, water, snacks, and video games, I also realized how very privileged we are. Throughout the week, I experienced the ways in which our privileges gave us security and freedom, even as we were uprooted from our physical home. We had the privilege to stay in an air-conditioned hotel in Atlanta for as long as we needed. We had the privilege of a warm, welcoming and loving Jewish community that embraced us and provided Shabbat meals, spirited prayer, friendship, and countless offers of home hospitality. We had the privilege of our education and professional networks so that we could rebuild our lives if our home and town were destroyed. Yet, despite our material comforts and access to countless resources, my husband and I still suffered insomnia and stress.
This is what made me return, time and time again, to the reference of Floridians as “refugees.” On the one hand, I had a tiny taste of the stress of being evacuated from my home, without knowing when or if I could return. I experienced momentary panic for my physical safety and the frantic instinct to escape harm’s way. On the other hand, I felt sheepish for every little moment of bad mood or anxiety, because I was deeply aware of the stark contrast between my “exile” from Miami and the harrowing plight of actual refugees throughout the world today.
In my work at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I have seen firsthand the African refugees who sought a haven in Israel. I have met African refugee parents who work long hours to secure basic necessities and must place their babies in one-room “warehouses” for up to 18 hours a day. I have learned about tiny children who must roam the streets of south Tel Aviv unsupervised all afternoon and evening because they have nowhere to go and no one to care for them as their parents work. I have read with frustration and shame about the Israeli government’s refusal to grant refugee status and appropriate aide to the 45,000 asylum seekers.
My week as an evacuee has affirmed my pride to work for an organization that seeks to actualize an aspirational Zionism in the State of Israel. Two years ago, the Shalom Hartman Institute devoted resources from our operating budget to open a day care center for African refugee children in south Tel Aviv. In addition to funding the facility and professional staff, Hartman students and faculty devote weekly hours to volunteer in the center to provide care, loving attention, and educational activities for the refugee children. This project is a small way for the Shalom Hartman Institute to further Jewish values in Israeli society, but it is also an important way to express a desperately needed vision for Zionism in today’s often toxic Israel discourse.
Rabbi David Hartman, z”l, taught that the privilege of returning to Jewish sovereignty today demands obligation and responsibility. The State of Israel does not merely represent a safe haven for Jews who were refugees and victims in a hostile and threatening world. Modern Israel also represents a return to Jewish power. Sovereignty affords us the ability to actualize our covenantal responsibilities. The privilege of having a land, army, and government means that we can exercise the visions of our Jewish moral heritage on the world stage. We can care for the stranger and the oppressed with the full force of a nation state.
The many Floridians who were spared the full extent of Irma’s wrath are feeling relieved and lucky today, my family included. Our attentions are now turned to the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma who still need help to recover and rebuild their lives. Last week also redoubled my commitment to contribute to the refugee plight in Israel, as a small way to make a tangible impact on the enormous and overwhelming refugee crisis in the world at large. As an American Jew in the 21st century, I will never be a “refugee.” I will always have the resources and networks I need to survive and thrive. However, I know that my privileges obligate me to take responsibility for those who are not as fortunate.