I first learned the word “Refugee” when I was in fourth grade. My Hebrew school class was going on an “experiential journey” from Eastern Europe to America, imaginatively re-enacting the trek many of our ancestors had taken several generations before.
We were assigned to families, given profiles, lists of household belongings, contacts in America and told to make our way through a gauntlet of teachers posing as immigration officials, ticket officers, doctors and more. We had to decide what we would bring with us; make a plan for housing and employment in New York (the unit culminated with a trip to the museum at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty) and figure out how to adapt to a new language and culture (since we already spoke English, the teachers used this as a chance to introduce us to a little Yiddish and reverse cultural immersion).
The exercise sparked conversations at home and I learned about my great, great, grandfather’s departure from Odessa, in order to escape becoming “cannon fodder for the Czar’s Army” as my great uncle told it. And I learned of my Uncle Avrum whose first family perished in the Holocaust before he came to the US as a survivor of the camps – I have a vague recollection of seeing the numbers tattooed on his arm.
For the Hebrew School exercise, we were encouraged to keep journals and I wrote pages about the experience I was undergoing and what I imagined my ancestors thought as they crossed that enormous ocean of fear and possibility. The overriding sentiment of my journal was “Thank God.” Thank God there is a place that welcomes strangers, refugees fleeing oppression and certain death, into its midst. Thank God there is a country that understands that anyone can become a contributing citizen and contribute to this great land. Thank God my ancestors’ religious beliefs did not keep them out of the “goldene medina” (golden land) that would become their new home. It was a simplistic understanding of the immigration process from a nine-year-old’s pen. But those thoughts formed the basis for my experience of this country and what it stood for – in its ideals if not always in practice.
That my father, a second-generation American, could grow from relative working-class poverty to a captain in the US Air Force and a successful career as a dentist, who put his two daughters through college, is living illustration to the wisdom of my ancestors’ choice to risk everything and come here those many years ago. And it is an inspiration for the thousands upon thousands of people – men, women, children – who themselves are facing displacement, starvation, oppression and death in their own lands and dare to take a step toward freedom here.
We are a nation of refugees and immigrants (as well as descendants of slaves and indigenous people). We are a beacon of hope in a dark and dangerous world. The world is facing the worst refugee and migrant crisis in recorded history. An estimated 65 million people are fleeing for their lives around the world. That we would consider doing anything other than welcoming them with open arms (after the very appropriate vetting processes already in effect) is a betrayal of our country’s values, our people’s history, and our own strengths.
The Torah teaches Jews to welcome the stranger because we know the heart of a stranger, having been strangers ourselves. By that reasoning, all Americans should feel that same obligation – we are a nation of strangers, brought together by common hope, common destiny and common faith in the ability to overcome differences and build a thriving and free society. Let us return to a time when those seeking haven can come to our shores and say, in whatever language they say it, “Thank God.”