‘It was VERY good’ – Remembering last year’s welcoming of refugees and immigrants

At the end of the sixth day in this week’s Torah portion, we read (Genesis 1:31)
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was VERY good.
This is the only time in the Creation story that the words “very good” are used. In previous verses, the text reads: “And God saw that it was good.”
Israel certainly has its share of problems and challenges, not the least of which is that there is a real possibility that an extreme right wing racist party led by Itamar Ben Gvir could take 10 to 12 seats in the upcoming elections.
I am an American and an Israeli citizen and have worked and lived in both countries.
Nevertheless, as we begin a new year and a new cycle of Torah reading, I feel that it is important to bring forth one particular aspect of something regarding Israel that occurred in this past year; something that that was indeed “very good.”
But first a little lesson from our history.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis began to deport 5,000 Jews per day from the Warsaw Ghetto. Their destination, 59 miles down the railroad tracks, was the death camp of Treblinka, the place where an estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered.
Sometime shortly thereafter, the Jewish physician, Dr. Yanucz Korchak led the children from the orphanage which he had created to the Umshalagplatz, the railway station where they were to be deported and then murdered. He knew well to where they were going, but he hid this from the children and proceeded to march them to the train station dressed in their best Shabbat clothes and singing joyful songs as they walked.
Compare this to what happened this past April. Israel succeeded in relocating an entire Jewish orphanage of some ninety children from Ukraine to Beit Meir, a Moshav outside of Jerusalem.
When the children arrived, Prime Minister Bennett entered the aircraft to welcome the children, introducing himself to one boy by saying, “I am Naftali, Prime Minister of Israel. Would you like to come into Israel?”
My how times have changed!
The war in Ukraine has impacted Israel’s overall immigration figures significantly. Net immigration for the past 12 months stands at 63,000, including 59,000 who qualify as olim, new immigrants.
According to the Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, 47 percent of this year’s olim came from Russia. The next largest group of immigrants came from Ukraine (25%), followed by the US (6%), France (4%) and Ethiopia (2%).
Three-quarters of this year’s new immigrants are linked to war in Ukraine.
But it does not stop there. As a result of Putin’s mobilization, Israeli passports are in high demand for Russian Jews and there are now an additional 55,000 Russians eligible for Aliyah who are desperately trying to get out of the country and come to Israel. Last week, Israel approved an additional NIS 90 million, around $26 million, for absorbing immigrants from Russia and Ukraine.
If you ever wondered why there must be a free and independent Jewish state, the contrast between these two stories illustrates not only the need for an Israel, but an affirmation of the entire Zionist enterprise.
Natan Sharansky who grew up in Ukraine recently commented: “The world has changed. When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unfortunate designation. No one envied us. But today on the Ukrainian border, identifying as a Jew is a most fortunate circumstance. It describes those who have a place to go, where their family, an entire nation, is waiting for them on the other side.”
But that is not all that Israel did this year in terms of welcoming Jews. Some two-thousand-plus Ethiopian Jews arrived from war-torn Ethiopia.
Once again, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greeted a planeload of children, this time accompanied by Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. Tamano-Shata is the first Ethiopian-born woman elected to Knesset as well as the first Ethiopian-born minister to serve in an Israeli governing coalition.
As a matter of fact, many Jews in Israel are Jews of color. The Ethiopian Aliyah is significant in that it is the only time in history that people brought black Africans to freedom them rather to slavery.
The story of immigration to Israel this year is indeed inspiring!
As we begin a new Jewish year, let us not forget that, with all of the problems and challenges Israel faces, Jews are far better off because someplace on this planet there is a “postage stamp” sized country wherein Jews have the right of self to the determination and wherein oppressed Jews can find refuge.
Some of the times, we need to remind ourselves of the “good” in Israel. Immigration to Israel this year made this last year one of those times.
As we approach to 75th anniversary of the founding of Israel, let us take the inspiration this week’s Torah portion and say regarding the Jewish state”
וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד
And behold, it was VERY good.
About the Author
Fred Guttman is the Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has served on the Commission of Social Action for Reform Judaism. He has been recognized as one of the “50 Voices for Justice” by the URJ and by the Forward Magazine as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” In March 2015, he organized the National Jewish commemoration in Selma of the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March.
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