The Ushpizin Were Refugees: What They Mean Today

At a rally in Minnesota last week, President Trump said, “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” referring to the roughly 50,000 Somalis living in the city, many of whom came to America in order to escape the violence of a brutal civil war. In fact, as the Biden campaign noted, this is not unusual. America itself is almost entirely made up of successive waves of immigrants, migrants, and refugees.

The festival of Sukkot, celebrated by the Jewish community this week, frames this most contemporary issue, as expressed by the Biden campaign, with Jewish values and tradition.

One time-honored custom is Ushpizin, the welcoming of a series of seven Biblical “guests” into our sukkot, the eponymous thatch-roof huts at the center of the holiday’s observance. These guests, traditionally Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and King David, have come to represent different things to Jews of different places and times. In one contemporary interpretation offered in a sermon by Rabbi Norman Lamm, their common denominator is their experience of a profound episode of exile or alienation, for example, Abraham leaving his homeland at God’s command, Joseph having been kidnapped and sold into Egyptian slavery, or King David living on the run, pursued first by King Saul and then by his own rebellious children.

In the teachings and writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, among the most influential of 20th century American Jewish thinkers and rabbinic leaders, the experience of existential loneliness is a goos thing – it encourages courage, independence, and self-actualization. In contrast, full social integration often leads to complacency, compromise, and, ultimately, stultifying conformity. As a Lithuanian-born immigrant himself, Soloveitchik spoke from personal experience. He often observed how he was of a different world than his congregants and students, few of whom could really understand him, and how that essential loneliness fueled both his creativity and the passion for which he was famous.

Ironically, his words about loneliness and alienation must have resonated deeply among his audiences. Soloveitchik, who came to America in 1932, was just one from several massive waves of Jewish immigration to America from the mid 19th century through the refugee resettlements following world war two that created a deep wellspring for cultural creativity, political organization, and, eventually, economic success and professional achievement.

At the same rally, Trump mocked Minnesota’s Representative Ilhan Omar, herself a resettled Somali refugee, asking, “how the hell did she get elected?” In a way, though, Omar follows in the footsteps of the Jewish immigrants who became progressive agitators and organizers at the forefront of an array of progressive causes and organizations in the early to mid 20th century. The immigrant experience, for all its hardship and, often, poverty, also fostered the idealistic drive to succeed, the desperation to courageously protest and make change, and the cultural tension and memories of want that ward off complacency.

As the Biden campaign correctly asserts, the waves of immigration to America are “the reason we have constantly been able to renew ourselves, to grow better and stronger as a nation, and to meet new challenges.

By moving from our stable homes to temporary structures on Sukkot and, from there, inviting the Ushpizin to join us, Jews reinforce two lessons. First, we renew our collective memory by reliving the litany of migrations and displacements that began with the Exodus from Egypt, and grew to include the successive reinventions and renewals across the world that are, today, at the heart of the rich Jewish cultural heritage. Second, we renew our commitment to warmly invite refugees into our homes. As unsettled aliens ourselves, we open our Sukkot with a spirit of empathy and generosity.

The dynamic we recreate by inviting the Ushpizin into our sukkot, not our homes, is reminiscent of an understanding of American history in which each successive group of immigrants and refugees welcomes the next. It is an understanding at odds with President Trump’s oft-repeated mantra that we are “one American nation.” In fact, no such nation has ever existed. America is, and has always been, a dynamic composite of the people who have come to make their lives here. More than anything else, that is the source of any alleged American exceptionalism or greatness.

It is with that first understanding of both American and Jewish history that Marc Hetfield, CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, says that HIAS’ work began because THEY (the refugees) were Jewish, and continues now because WE are Jewish. On the other hand, it is with that second understanding that Robert Gregory Bowers attacked Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, killing 11 and wounding six, the week after the synagogue took part in HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat. Bowers wrote, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” His “my people” and Trump’s “one American nation” are essentially identical.

Rally bombast aside, ending refugee resettlement in the United States has long been a Trump priority. The administration’s 2021 proposed budget includes funding for resettling only 15,000 refugees, down from 18,000 last year, itself the lowest number in decades and a fraction of the 95,000/year goal recommended by advocates, including HIAS. At the same time, the Trump administration has deliberately perpetrated terrible cruelties, including family separation, on families seeking safe haven in America. With more refugees and asylum seekers today than at any time since World War II, Biden’s pledge to immediately raise that number to 125,000 more accurately reflects both the realities of American history and our Jewish values as well.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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