The Passover Haggadah teaches us that anyone who elaborates upon the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, is praiseworthy. This year as the holiday approaches, I think about the leading plot line in particular: “We were strangers in a foreign land.” The nausea that I’ve felt in recurring waves since President Trump’s first travel ban was announced overwhelms me once again. At the Passover seder, we are obligated to ask questions, and here is mine — will we let history repeat itself?
I have lived a privileged life of physical and geographic security. My first exposure to what it means to be displaced, broadly defined, was working for Mumbai Mobile Creches, an organization supporting migrant families living on Mumbai’s construction sites. These families had moved from rural villages to the thriving coastal city of Mumbai in search of economic opportunity, only to find that language and paperwork barriers kept them from accessing even the most basic city services, including schools for their children. Though they are Indian, they did not benefit from the privileges to which locally-born citizens were entitled.
What does it mean to belong to a given place, and who makes that determination? The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as those who have left their home countries due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Today there are approximately 19 million refugees worldwide fleeing from unspeakable violence, and millions more are internally displaced within the borders of their countries. The average length of exile for a refugee is over 15 years; without pathways to citizenship or the ability to work, refugees escape violence only to face an often uncertain future and increasingly slim odds of resettlement.
I first learned about how to give tzedakah as a Solomon Schechter day school student — Rav Yosef taught: “If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor person who is with you” (Exodus 22:24). Rav Huna extrapolated from this that “if it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the one of the poor of your city takes precedence.” But how can I prioritize my own immediate neighborhoods when I live in a city with superior schools and amenities, when our country takes for granted the clean water (though that is notably stratified by race and class) and strong infrastructure that billions can’t access in the global south?
Too many of us feel detached from others’ suffering. 54 percent of registered US voters do not feel a responsibility to accept Syrian refugees, and this rejection of refugees is a phenomenon that has spanned our country’s history. Instead of turning people away, we should take a lesson from the Rambam, who rules that on Passover one should feel as if he personally left Egypt. To put ourselves in the mindset of the persecuted and the displaced means that we must empathize with the millions living this reality in today’s world and act accordingly. As a volunteer helping refugee clients prepare for job interviews at the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, I have witnessed firsthand how refugees in America desire to work and find security for themselves and their families; to support them as they work to support themselves would be to engage in Rashi’s highest form of giving tzedakah.
I have much to learn about how to be an activist for refugees, but I know we can do this much: talk about the world’s refugees at your Passover seder. Bring their names, their faces, and their stories into the light. The less we talk about it, the easier it becomes to toss this crisis into the ever-growing pile of global horrors that we ignore because they feel too confusing or painful to bear on our shoulders. I desperately want a Moses to follow, a leader with the path forward to bring refugees from pain to freedom, but there is only us and the responsibility is ours. The image of Jews crossing the Red Sea to freedom is too real for comfort, as we see images of refugees desperately attempting the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. And it was less than a century ago that the SS St. Louis was forced to sail back to Europe, denying hundreds of desperate Jews what could have been their salvation from the Nazis. Instead of squeezing my eyes shut to erase the image, I will to bring that image and its meaning to the forefront of my seder as we reach Magid, the re-telling of the exodus story.
These days, I split my time between Boston and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In conversation after conversation, Ethiopians ask me about President Trump, frequently citing his actions as hateful and wondering aloud that he must hate Africans. They recognize his proposals for what they are: an undisguised effort to keep people he sees as dangerous and “other,” primarily Muslims and people of color, from joining our country. As Jews and as global citizens, we are obligated to oppose the current administration’s policies barring refugees from our country. And in the spirit of Dayeinu, the song highlighting all the ways in which God went above and beyond what would have been enough for the Jews, let’s go beyond the bare minimum of just welcoming the stranger to our shores. Let’s help refugees feel like they truly belong in America.