Where Are the Orthodox Voices on the Refugee Crisis?

There are those weeks when coming up with a topic for a weekly column can be challenging, but Donald Trump is, for people like me and late-night talk show hosts, the gift that just keeps on giving. The greater problem these days is not “what will I write about,” but rather deciding which of many topics to address. Mike Flynn’s resignation and what it represents is on everyone’s mind right now, and for good reason. But the nature of the Trump presidency so far has been that just when we are able to focus attention on one crisis that richly deserves it, the next crisis comes along and displaces our focus. So, for the moment, I want to stay on the topic of immigration– last week’s focus– and come back to General Flynn and his untruths another day.

For the past few years, a friend in the  modern Orthodox community has chided me for what he perceived as the overwhelming Orthodox support for the Salute to Israel Parade here in New York, and the relative lack thereof on the part of non-Orthodox Jews. There are many more Yeshivas marching than non-Orthodox day schools, many more kippah-wearing spectators dotting the street than others, and the ambience of the entire proceeding is not unlike a holiday gathering of the pro-Israel Orthodox community.

There are responses to his comments. Quite simply, there are many more Yeshivas than Schechter and Reform Day Schools (and many more children in the Orthodox community– to their credit), many more families in the Orthodox world with members who have made Aliyah (also to their great credit), and, in general, a greater identification with the unique religious nationalism that fuels Aliyah and love of Israel so successfully. Additionally, the non-Orthodox world tends to have a more nuanced view of Israeli politics and policies, particularly as they regard issues of religious pluralism. In many ways, the religious establishment of Israel has pushed us away. Though I chafe at the idea that the non-Orthodox world isn’t present at that parade (remember, it’s harder to pick out people who aren’t wearing kippot than people who are, and actually, quite a few Conservative Jews wear kippot!), I think he’s basically right. The Orthodox are there in greater numbers, and I am obliged to admire their passion.

But for the moment, I’d like to turn the tables…

Just a few days ago, this past Sunday, I attended a rally in Battery Park, New York sponsored by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The rally, one of many held that day by Jewish communities around the country, was designed to protest President Trump’s ban on all Syrian refugees and proposed travel ban on Muslims seeking to enter the United States from seven countries. Its intent was to show solidarity with those who see America as their best hope for a safer and more tenable life.

The weather was abysmal in New York last Sunday. It was hailing and sleeting throughout the program. But despite that, there were still a few hundred people who braved the elements to come out. One of the organizers read an honor roll of Jewish institutions, organizations and synagogues that were sponsors of the rally, and I was taken aback by something that was glaringly obvious– none of the major Orthodox educational institutions, synagogues, the OU, Young Israel… almost none of them were there, and certainly not sponsoring. I say “almost none” because I heard the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale address the gathering, and there were one or two other Orthodox synagogues. But the overwhelming- and I mean overwhelming- number of sponsoring organizations, and attendees (very few kippot in the crowd), were from the non-Orthodox world.

And I asked myself, why is that? How and when did it happen that loving the stranger and showing sensitivity to their plight became a “progressive” cause, and not a traditionally religious one?

For the record, this is not a new issue. Thousands of years ago, priests and prophets in the Jewish world advanced very different agendas, with radically different priorities. On Yom Kippur, the Torah reading from Leviticus discusses the detailed rituals of the exiling of a scapegoat into the desert by the Israelites as a ritual of atonement. The prophetic portion for Yom Kippur, however, taken from the prophet Isaiah, proclaims, in strikingly explicit terms, how God despises the blood of the sacrificial animals and the rivers of oil on the altar– if the sacrifices are empty rituals, devoid of spiritual content. The true sacrifice that God desires is to care for the orphan and widow, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless. In our own time, Abraham Joshua Heschel addressed this tension powerfully. It was, in large measure, that sensitivity that led him– a deeply religious and ritually observant Jew– to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

It feels to me that the “progressive agenda,” because it is so closely identified with the left-leaning wing of the Democratic party, is seen as a threat to Israel, and that is the source of the conscious distancing. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, who’s running for head of the Democratic National Committee– their very liberal orientation is not a natural bedfellow of right-wing Israeli politics, which dominates today’s Israel, and their public pronouncements about Israel have been less than reassuring. The Republicans have historically been, and remain, much more inclined to be strongly supportive of Israel. And as the party has moved to the right, its support has grown even stronger. Once upon a time, liberals loved Israel, and Conservatives didn’t. In 2017, exactly the opposite is the case.

To which I would add just a few thoughts…

First, the ultimate purpose of Jewish ritual is to lead us to the ethical sensitivity that Isaiah preached. If rituals are divorced from those sensitivities, or if they are limited to Jews only and not to to others, then, truly, we have forfeited that other classical prophetic mandate to be an or lagoyim– a light unto the nations. The ideal relationship between ritual and ethical is a dialectic. Each challenges the other. It is not, as I see it, authentically Jewish to deny either pole of that dialectic. To be observant cannot mean to be uncaring to overwhelming social crises, and to be socially conscious does not free one of ritual obligations. They feed each other.

Second, if the Jewish community cedes the progressive agenda to the Democratic party and its left wing, then as that party undergoes the process of reconstituting itself in the wake of its awful defeat this past November, there will be precious little room in it to be observant, staunchly pro-Israel, and a Democrat. As I see it, that would be an unmitigated catastrophe, leaving us an unenviable  choice between Republican, socially regressive politics that are pro-Israel, and Democratic, liberal progressive politics that are, at best, luke-warm to Israel. We are closer to that situation now than we have ever been before, and it leaves me with a terribly uneasy feeling. And just to put this out there, who knows what the Republican party will look like a year from now, or what Donald Trump’s policies towards Israel will be? Thinking the Republican party will be a safe zone for Israel, even if you can abide their social policies, is a big assumption.

Which leads me to my third and final thought…

I am well aware that the Jews who were fleeing Nazi Europe were not the same as today’s Muslims fleeing Syria and other Arab countries. As Rodgers and Hammerstein reminded us so poignantly, you’ve got to be carefully taught how to hate, and many of today’s Muslim refugees were, indeed, taught. But for the life of me, as a religious Jew, I simply don’t know or understand how one can avoid the implications of the Torah’s repeated (thirty-six times!) teaching to love and care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it feels like to be rejected in our hour of greatest need. Hate is, indeed, a corrosive power, but love heals many wounds. I see it in my work with the Muslim community in my area; they are deeply and genuinely moved by the response of so many Jews to their situation.

I am, proudly, a religious, observant Jew, a proud, unapologetic Zionist, and I lean much more to a liberal social agenda than to a regressive one. It’s getting lonely out there for folks like me…and it really shouldn’t be.




About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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