Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Never Again: Praying With Our Feet and Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was devastated to find the Nazi policies he fled as a Jew in play in the U.S. against Black people in March 1940. This Rabbi/philosopher made a stink, not merely with his words, but with his protesting body for the rest of his life. After marching for voting rights with Martin Luther King, Amelia Boynton & John Lewis at Selma, Heschel said, “our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Fast forward to January 27th, 2020. Donald Trump was President of the United States. Americans were facing one of many tests ushered in by Trump’s thirst for autocracy. Immigrants were identified as public enemy number one and on 1/27/20, the United States Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that our Executive may authorize “wealth test” rules. These rules were remarkably similar to what the U.S. did before and during World War II to keep out Jews desperate to flee the rise of Nazism for safety in the United States. Scotus’s ruling allowed Donald Trump to legally wall out a new generation of immigrants. Ironically, on the very same day, 75 years after Auschwitz, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Never Again [Holocaust] Education Act.

Jewish historical understandings of Never Again directed most American Jews to stand against Trump’s unacceptable immigration policies, some of whom were arrested for building human walls in front of ICE detention centers. These human walls echoed Heschel; the last four years of Jewish bodies fighting against dehumanizing immigration fascism was both a bodily prayer and in light of our recent immigrant past, it was a historically anguished cry of empathy.

The arrested American Jews embodied what it means to be a post holocaust American Jew who never forgets and Judaically prays with social-political action, not merely liturgy. Such recent prayers showed that we Jews are not the ones being kept out or hunted down. This time, we are on the other side of it, even amidst risingJew-hatred, we are at home as Americans and we have privilege to play that comes with such a home.

83 years ago at this time, we were in a very different position. 83 years ago world leaders could sense what was coming. In July 1938, the US government organized the Evian conference to address the growing European Jewish refugee problem. At Evian only the Dominican Republic agreed to take in Jews, 100,000. By Nov of 1938, the future was forecast: “Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated by Democracies,” declared The Los Angeles Examiner. [1] Still, in 1939 eighty-nine percent of Americans felt accepting European Jewish immigrants would threaten American Security while taking Americans’ jobs. By 1943 American opinion changed. Nevertheless, what became the Holocaust could have been no more than a terrible emigration story of millions of Jewish refugees fleeing the coming Nazi extinction of Europe’s Jews. Now we ask ourselves as American Jews under President Biden: how do we remember the murdered Jews of Europe and the conditions that were created for their murder?

Those murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, outside of Pittsburgh, were gathered to discuss immigration, especially the historical role the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) played in helping immigrants and refugees.  HIAS was founded to rescue Jews from the pogroms of Europe, but continues to this day working for those fleeing danger and oppression worldwide.  The murder of the congregants was a double insult to Judaism – it was an attack born of the hatred of Jews, but struck as post-Holocaust American Jews tried to help others whose story resembles their own.

A retelling of that story is coming out, a remake of the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler, of course, ends with an ugly emigration story of refugees fleeing a coming pogrom; a post-holocaust American retelling of a central narrative of Judaism – Exodus. Every Passover, Jews are called upon to recount the Exodus of their ancient ancestors from slavery in Egypt. The story is one of Judaism’s moral roots, “never forget you were slaves, strangers in a foreign land.” The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) has more injunctions on behalf of the stranger than any other issue.

The Israelites (which means “those who wrestle with God”) were led from Egypt to Canaan just as three thousand years later the Fiddler fled Russia for America; both are stories of a promised future.  Jews were forced into exile, but created new and better lives for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. But this story, of course, is not true of all Jews.  On this day of Holocaust remembrance 76 years later, we remember there was no exodus. The Nazis and many Europeans are to blame for the murder of six million Jews, but it is the US and Canada, Britain, too, that blocked their exodus by doing nothing as evidenced by the results of the Evian conference.

Had North Americans opened its arms to these victims, we might still need a day of international remembrance, but instead of remembering a genocide, we would be remembering a Jewish Exodus.  It could not be a day of mourning, but rather a day of remembrance for how Jews fled European Jew-hatred into a promise of American opportunity.  This day would be a different day if Americans in the 1930’s had done what they could have, what they should have, what was morally asked of them, to have allowed Jews facing extinction to live here, to live at all.

Today, many Jewish Americans of all ages invoke Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s command, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We have a choice in how we respond to strangers – whether they are alive or dead. The Jewish American protests in front of ICE buildings were prayerful responses that make a blessing of the memories of those murdered by Nazi Europe while demanding we hear the cries of those fleeing for here.  Close to 75 million Americans don’t hear the cries. Biden’s win against oligarchical autocracy gives no time to celebrate hope. We must realize this hope ASAP.  Like the prophets of old and new, e.g., Rabbi Heschel, we will make our American Jewish voices heard for the vulnerable. We will continue to stand for the suffering body seeking refuge from murderous harm. Never Again.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College