My Refugee Blues

A few weeks ago I saw my Jewish dreams wash ashore. It was the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach that shattered those visions. It should have been the hundreds of thousands of other deaths. It should have been the press of some 60 million refugees struggling to escape persecution and war, hunger and famine. Instead it was one child. I watched as this little boy was carried ever so gently from a beach that serves in most years as a destination for tourists and vacationers.

Unetanah tokef kedushat hayom. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water.

The family had set out on a thirteen-mile journey across the Aegean Sea to make their way to the Greek island of Kos. Their boat capsized. The boy’s five-year-old brother and mother also drowned. His father, Abdullah, survived.   Here is what Aylan’s father said:

The Turk [smuggler] jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and wife and we held onto the boat. We stayed like that for an hour, then the first [son] died and I left him so I could help the other, then the second died, so I left him as well to help his mom but I found her dead. … What do I do? … I spent three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were all fake. My wife is my world and I have nothing. By God… I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms. (NPR, September 3, 2015)

I should have taken note two years ago when I read of the 4 million Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. I am choking. I cannot breathe. Dreams elude me.

My boy is studying in Budapest. He is there to learn with some of Hungary’s leading mathematicians and of course to take in some of the wonders of Europe and I am sure a few too many of the city’s nightspots and bars. Then the crush of these refugees began to intrude on his studies. For weeks, thousands of Syrians huddled in the city’s main train station. A refugee camp grew outside his apartment. Ari saw them as soon as he stepped outside his door for the one-minute walk to the station. He could see the families from his window. He saw the police assemble to crack down on what Hungary describes as illegal immigration.

My mother-in-law said, “Hungary has not been in the news since the 1950s save the occasional mention in the travel section. Ari decides to go there and now it is in the news every single day.” The grandmother’s worry emerges. You can hear her thoughts, “My grandson is sitting on top of this explosive situation.” I offer reassurances. Don’t worry. He is a smart kid. For a few days he chose the bus over the subway to avoid the huddled masses at the Keleti station. For now the refugees have left Budapest and the situation near Ari’s apartment has by and large dissipated, although along the country’s borders it has become increasingly volatile. The worldwide crisis grows larger and larger with each passing day.

Why do I only stand up and take note when these millions reach Europe’s doorstep? Syria is in rubbles. Iraq convulses. Afghanistan is reduced to tribal feuds. Human beings are trapped in between these warring factions. Human beings are suffering. We live in unprecedented times. Not since World War II have there been this many refugees. In Syria alone, in addition to the nearly 4 million who have fled, there are 7.5 million who are internal refugees and are displaced from their homes. The population of Syria is reported to be 23 million. 5,000 Syrians run from their homeland every day. Of the nearly 60 million refugees in the world today nearly half are children. And we stand silent. How can Jews stand mute in the face of such unimaginable suffering?

The Torah admonishes us that we must not remain indifferent. Lo tuchal l’hitalem.

The Book of Deuteronomy offers examples. When you see your neighbor’s animal wandering away, you must take it back to him. When you find your neighbor’s garment you must return it to him. Lo tuchal l’hitalem. You must not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:3) We are not allowed to turn aside. We are commanded to get involved. The Hebrew suggests even more. Literally the verse can be translated: You cannot make yourself hidden. You cannot hide from your responsibility to the other. And yet there is even more to be found in the Hebrew. The root of the word “to make hidden” is the same as the root for the word olam, world. Is the Hebrew suggesting that too often we allow the world to become hidden, that we hide ourselves from the troubles of the world?

I contend instead that in our reaching out to others the world becomes revealed. For years I remained indifferent. Human beings are suffering. The world is traumatized. Borders are being redrawn. The map will be forever different. The fragile EU could very well crumble under the weight of these refugees and the Greek debt crisis. For years I allowed millions of refugees to remain hidden. I refused to see that one person out of every 122 people in the world is on the run, is a refugee seeking asylum. And then one boy opened my eyes.

You can hear the anguish in some of Ari’s emails. He writes:

Dear Abba, What an odd condition we are under as students of the humanities and as the educated elite that we first turn to write about our observations and our feelings. Maybe it is time, as Leon Wieseltier suggests, to say, “Enough spectatorship!” I don’t know if I will ever really forgive myself for not acting when the Keleti station was filled with refugees. The situation has died down now. A couple of days ago my friend went to make PB&J sandwiches for the refugees and he joked that they were by far the worst looking food items being given out. Everyone is in tents now. You cannot see the smell on TV. There was a concert last night at the station with the slogan “We love refugees.” It was like a full on concert with bands and parties. There was a moment in time when I was needed and all I could do was walk by, think, and write. Makes you wonder a little. Love, Ari

I respond.

Ari, Sadly there will be more people. There will be more need. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s not like world leaders really knew what to do. It’s not like anyone responded perfectly. I understand you feel guilty. This might sound strange but that’s not such a bad thing. People too often think that guilt is something to be overcome. That is true if it becomes incapacitating. But I believe that guilt comes from a good place. It means that you feel responsible. It means that you did not live up to your sense of duty to others. Guilt is the feeling of a person who has high aspirations for himself. You came up short this time. Next time I doubt you will. As much as it hurts we always fall short of our dreams. If all our goals were so easily achievable then what would be the point. That is how one’s character is refined.


You are in Budapest to learn about math subjects whose titles I can barely even pronounce. Sometimes these pursuits become distractions. We become more at home in the pages of our books then looking up from their words to the world at large. Our devotions should be about sending us out to the world to bring healing to others, to relieve a measure of suffering from those who are in pain. Few have the strength to do that every day. I certainly do not. But that is our purpose. We are called to do good. Happiness can’t be pursued. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Righteousness must pursued. Happiness is the byproduct of the pursuit of good. It is not the goal. So harness that guilt. Bottle that up. There will be a next time. Love, Abba

Dear Abba, Why do your emails sound like sermons? So am I supposed to hope for a next time? #firstworldproblemsarenotrealproblems. Love you, Ari.

The Torah commands us to love the stranger. This mitzvah is repeated 36 times. By contrast we are commanded to love the neighbor one time. We are commanded to love God only one time. Why is love of the stranger repeated over and over again? It must be because it is really, really important. It might also be because it is so hard to do. The Torah states: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” Why? “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) Long ago the Torah recognized what history has taught us over and over again. We know what it feels like to be a stranger.

My grandparents came to this country in order to improve their lives, in order to uplift their families. It would give them immeasurable pleasure to know that their great grandson who they never met traveled back to the Europe they left behind in order to enrich his mind and expand his universe. My Nana especially remembered the horrors of the old country. She recalled the Cossacks marauding through her shtetl. She recalled the many days without ample food to eat. I still think that is why no matter how fancy the dinner or how ordinary the meal, her evaluation was always the same. “It is tasty.”

The image of the S.S. St. Louis remains imprinted on our collective conscious. Our very own beloved country, the United States of America, turned away a boatload of German Jewish refugees seeking to escape the impending Nazi onslaught. In 1939 it was returned to Germany where the majority of its passengers died in the Shoah’s gas chambers. Historians believe that this was a turning point in the Nazi regime’s thinking. They came to understand that the world would not rise up to defend the Jewish people. Assad appears to have drawn similar conclusions. They understood that the world would remain indifferent. Lo tuchal l’hitalem. You must not remain indifferent. You cannot hide from the world’s problems.

When Menachem Begin, a survivor of the Holocaust, became Prime Minister of Israel he lived by these valuesd. In 1977, 66 Vietnamese were adrift at sea after fleeing the Communist takeover of their country.   Ships from Panama, Norway and Japan ignored their distress calls. They were starving and dying of thirst. Captain Meir Tadmor of an Israeli cargo ship stopped to give them food and water. He brought them on board. With these Vietnamese on board the ship was not allowed to dock in Hong Kong. Taiwan refused to allow these refugees to enter the country. Seeing the desperation of fellow human beings, Prime Minister Begin decided to make them citizens of Israel. They were then allowed to disembark in Taiwan. They boarded a plane to Israel.

In all, some 300 Vietnamese were welcomed to Israel. It might have been a token number but its significance still figures large in my dreams. Begin explained his decision with these words: “We have never forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give these people a haven in the Land of Israel.” This was Begin’s first act as Prime Minister. For this then thirteen year old that moment served as a powerful testimony to what it means to be a Jewish nation. A daring raid on Entebbe’s airport to rescue Jews and a leaky boat filled with refugees sit on either side of a year, and of my attachment to the Zionist dream.

This past summer when in Israel I met with other refugees. Today in Israel there are some 50,000 refugees from Africa, primarily from Sudan, Darfur and Eritrea. Many of these are Muslims. Here are people who literally walked across 1,000 miles of desert, through the wilderness of Sinai, to make their way to the land and State of Israel. Not all survived this perilous journey. They ran from civil war and persecution. At first Israel accepted them, although not with open arms. Should they be called illegal immigrants or infiltrators, refugees or asylum seekers?

Israel soon built a fence to slow the flood of refugees. How could such a small country grant citizenship to these refugees, especially given that they are not Jewish? And yet this exodus takes one’s breath away. Israel has become a refuge, a destination where people can better their lives and escape persecution, not just for Jews but for countless others. At first Israel just bussed these refugees from the border to Tel Aviv’s central bus station. There ordinary Israelis began to reach out to the strangers among them. They built nurseries to care for the children. The government then built a large detention center in the Negev to house the refugees.

My colleagues and I met with two refugees. Here is what one man said, “I would rather sit in jail in Israel than be forced to go back to Sudan.   I would prefer to go back home but I would be killed if I went back today. So let me become part of Israeli society. Let me serve in the army, go to school, and get a job.” The government, like so many other governments, worries about how many immigrants they can absorb. No country can welcome an infinite number of refugees.

Lest you think I am avoiding questions about the current geopolitical situation, let me address the question of “But there might be terrorists hidden among these refugees.” Yes that is possible. There is no such thing as 100% security. Need I remind you of the terrible things said about Jewish refugees! Let me be clear and direct about the security concerns. Today’s battles are with Islamic fundamentalists. It is not with all Muslims. We are not at war with Islam. That being said, the inability of Muslims to root out the ideology of terror, the unwillingness of Muslims to condemn their co-religionists who murder in their faith’s name perpetuates our struggle. We need more ordinary, believing Muslims to stand up and loudly say, “This is not Islam!” If I could figure out a way to help them do this I stand willing and able.

We rightly fear terrorism. We rightly want to protect our country and its citizens.  But securing our future is not just about security. It is also about renewing our commitment to our values. Our Jewish future is guaranteed by loving the stranger. Our legacy is ensured when we use the remembrance of the wrongs done against us as a call to uplift others. Elie Wiesel once said, “A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering… The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

And yet we continue with our everyday lives and concerns as if the world is not convulsing. It is a defense mechanism. My boy calls out to me and reminds me of our duty and our obligation, of the Jewish concern for the stranger. Get involved. Do more. Give to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization, impelled by Jewish history and founded on Jewish values. Created 130 years ago HIAS rescues people whose lives are in danger for who they are. Our country’s decision to increase the number of refugees from 70,000 to 100,000 is a miniscule step. It is but a token gesture. We are a nation of immigrants. We are immeasurably enriched when others make our home their home.

In 1939 W.H. Auden wrote a beautiful and haunting poem. It was composed in response to the Jewish refugees clamoring to reach safety here in the United States. It is entitled “Refugee Blues.”  I share a few of his verses:

Say this city has ten million souls,

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now….


Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;

They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

The security of our dreams rests in our hands. The safety of the world’s children demands our attention.

On Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Isaac’s birth. The rabbis assigned this Torah reading for the first day. It begins with the verse: “V’Adonai pakad et Sarah…And God remembered Sarah.” (Genesis 21) We read this because on Rosh Hashanah we hope and pray that God will remember us as God remembered Sarah. We forget the concluding verses. We remember Sarah and Isaac. We forget Hagar and Ishmael. We forget Hagar whose name contains hints of the Hebrew ger, stranger. A refresher about this story.   Earlier Sarah instructs Abraham to sleep with her maidservant Hagar so that he might have an heir through her. Now that God miraculously provides for Sarah and she gives birth to Isaac, she callously (I don’t know how else to read her actions) banishes Hagar and Abraham’s other son Ishmael to the wilderness. Abraham as well sends them on their journey with meager rations. They soon run out of water. Hagar leaves the child under one of the bushes. The Torah records her innermost thoughts. She sits a distance away and thinks, “Let me not look on as the child dies.”  And she burst into tears.

It is through Ishmael that Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham. Today, at this moment, it is his descendants who wander the dessert in search of water. We cannot remember Sarah but forget Hagar. We can no longer choose to read the opening verses about Isaac but neglect the concluding passages about Ishmael. Our Torah holds both stories within its lines.

The Torah relates: “And God heard the cry of the boy… Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.”

For too long my eyes have remained shut. For too long I have ignored the pleas of the stranger. I have stood apart and indifferent. No more. It begins with a boy. My dreams must be resuscitated. I know the heart of the refugee. My people once wandered from country to country. The heart of the stranger requires healing and help. It demands uplift and care. I am certainly mindful of our fears, of our concerns about safety and security, but I worry as well about securing our tradition and our heritage. If we turn a blind eye to the suffering and pain of the stranger we betray our dreams. Let us renew our dreams by reaching out to those in need.

It begins with the cry of a boy. It begins with the voice of a child. V’ahavta et hager — Love the stranger!

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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