You Must Not Remain Indifferent!

breaking the chains of oppression

You must not remain indifferent! (Deuteronomy 22:3)

Among us, we may disagree about immigration laws or how those who are seeking asylum should legally access the safety of the United States of America. Yet, as a people who are keenly aware of the burden of being without home or nation for centuries, we also have a deep, clear, and moral sense of how to treat families and young children with humanity and decency.

During a time of seemingly insurmountable divisions and challenges in our nation’s history, it is often helpful to return to our holy texts which have provided guidance and wisdom for thousands of years. The Torah demands from us compassion and empathy when encountering a stranger in our midst.

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

Reminders to treat the stranger with fairness and righteousness are repeated 35 more times in the Torah, more than any other commandment in the entire text.

Moreover, we are reminded of the miracle of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in our prayers THREE times a day. Interestingly, we recall the moment of the Exodus not to merely celebrate it and say, hey, look at this awesome thing that happened to us way back when. Instead, we are reminded of it so that we remember that there are still so many others who are not yet free, not yet safe, not yet in a home they can call their own.

What has happened to the America we have celebrated – one which welcomes the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free? For so many of us, we are proud to be a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, nationalities, heritages, and traditions.  To us, this is what makes us strong, this is what makes us compassionate, this is what makes us exemplars of morality around the world.

We ourselves – nearly every single person in the United States – are descendants of immigrants. Every single one of us. Every single one of us has an ancestor who traveled away from home – perhaps for positive reasons, but, more often than not, in a brave act in pursuit of freedom. We are all too aware of what has happened to members of the Jewish people throughout history when migration was prohibited, feared, or halted. We know all too well how it feels to be that stranger, to be that family praying for safe haven or refuge. We recall the stories of the MS St Louis – with the shores of Miami visible to the 900+ Jews fleeing European persecution – and America’s refusal to grant them refuge. Of course, we know what happened ultimately to so many of those passengers.

We know what it is to run for our lives, to fear for our lives, to try to build new lives in a new land, to pray fervently for better lives for our children. Empathy for the refugee is built into our cells.

Perhaps this empathy and call to action truly goes all the way back to the Torah – in case the repetitive commandments in the Torah weren’t enough, the Book of Deuteronomy then states unequivocally:

Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And all the people shall say, Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Together Rising – an organization which states that it turns collective heartbreak into effective action, shares that there are 13,100 children imprisoned right now in federal custody — alone, without their families — facing horrifying neglect and abuse. Who will protect and defend these children? Cursed are we who do nothing.

Rabbi Esther Lederman, in a piece entitled, “Children Belong in Schools Not Cages,” writes:

God – I pray that we can love the child of the widow, of the orphan, of the stranger more than we love our walls. These United States of America were supposed to have been built on an idea of freedom, and an attitude of abundance. We’ve become small and afraid, seeing scarcity everywhere we turn. But love is an abundant resource. Justice is an abundant resource. Love never runs out. Justice never runs out.

Jewish clergy have been encouraged to sign on to a letter by HIAS (founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which includes:

The right to flee one’s country and seek safety in another is protected under both U.S. and international law. For those requesting asylum in the U.S., to be denied a fair process could mean a return to situations most of us cannot imagine in some of the most violent countries in the world.

Our tradition teaches that each and every person deserves to be treated justly and with compassion. However, under current U.S. policy and practice, asylum seekers instead face an ever-lengthening list of injustices including family separation, long periods of detention in jail-like facilities, and denial of due process in their legal proceedings. Simply put, our country is treating these individuals as criminals, even though seeking asylum is a legal right. This must change.

One of the most misunderstood parts of this whole discussion is – what exactly is asylum? Is it legal? 

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) informs us that:

Asylum is a form of protection granted to individuals who can demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to return to their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The right to seek asylum was incorporated into international law following the atrocities of World War II. Congress adopted key provisions of the Geneva Refugee Convention (including the international definition of a refugee) into U.S. immigration law when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980.

What these families at the border are requesting is ASYLUM. And it is LEGAL for them to seek asylum according to US Law and International Law, just as so many of our ancestors have done in generations past. The IRC continues:

An asylum seeker is someone who has fled their home in search of safety and formally applied for legal protection in another country. Because he or she cannot obtain protection in their home country, they seek it elsewhere. Asylum seekers may be of any age, gender, socio-economic status, or nationality—though the majority come from regions of the world that are suffering from conflict, disaster, and weak rule of law.

Yes, seeking asylum is legal. Asylum seekers must be in the U.S. or at a port of entry (an airport or an official land crossing) to apply for, or request the opportunity to apply for, asylum. “There’s no way to ask for a visa or any type of authorization in advance for the purpose of seeking asylum,” says the International Rescue Committee’s director of immigration, Olga Byrne. “You just have to show up.”

“While the administration is saying people should come here legally and follow a legal process, it’s making it impossible to do so,” says Byrne. “So many individuals and families have been trying to follow a legal process, but instead they’ve been stranded in Tijuana or other northern Mexico towns because they have been denied access to any U.S. official.”

Those who claim that these are “illegals” (such a dehumanizing term) completely misunderstand what a majority of these families are trying to seek: safety, security, and freedom from their oppressive and dangerous homelands. Many are unable to follow any sort of legal process at the moment because our government has made it nearly impossible to do so.

A beautiful quote from St. Augustine, which is included in our synagogue’s worship liturgy, states, “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.”

In this critical moment, we pray for the health and safety of the precious children who are suffering such cruelty and injustice, and we act in order to put an end to these inhumane conditions. Our prayers need not be passive; our actions need not be fruitless.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

We must not remain indifferent. We must act. It is mandated by our tradition to alleviate the suffering of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Isaiah reminds us that any other action or ritual is meaningless to God if we are not taking care of those in our midst who are in need.

If you are feeling helpless, and are hoping to take action, the following organizations are doing important work to help the families in detention:

RAICES: RAICES is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency that promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees.

National Bail Fund Network: Immigration advocates have noted one sure-fire way to help people separated from their children: Posting their bail.

American Immigrant Lawyers Association: AILA is the national association of immigration lawyers established to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.

Immigrant Legal Resource Center: Print out copies of rules and recommendations for what someone should do when confronted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Learn these rules and share them widely in your neighborhood and online.

Remember what God demands of us:

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

About the Author
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. A native of Skokie, Illinois, she received her BA in Psychology from Brandeis University in 1999 and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.
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