When we greet one another at Rosh Hashana, particularly when it arrives so early in the fall, our first question is often, “How was your summer?” We share our adventures and projects and travels—sort of the adult version of “What I did on my summer vacation.” I do hope each of you did something pleasurable and rejuvenating during the summer, and are feeling refreshed and ready to begin a new year.
Permit me to ask a somewhat different version of the question: what DID you do over the summer in the realm of tikkun olam, repairing the world and making it a better place?
If you’ve been following current events, you are aware of a great many issues facing our country and society. What were you able to do to address these issues? Did you volunteer your time to work on legislation or human rights or supporting individuals in need? Did you go to a protest? Did you call or write to your elected representatives? Send money to organizations? Read the newspaper and cluck over the headlines? Or perhaps engage in some self-care and turn off media to give yourself a needed break?
I’d like to share a bit about what I did, and what I learned. Let me begin by confessing I feel, as I often do, that I did not do enough—but I am reminded, again and again, of words from Pirkei Avot, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor—it is not up to you to complete the work.”
I began my day on a blistering June morning in the Public Gardens in Boston by attending a Shabbat morning service with members of Dorshei Tzedek of Newton. Together, we sang and spoke and prayed, seeking some Shabbat shalom for ourselves. We then prepared to seek shalom for others, uniting with thousands at the National Day of Action rally, to speak out against the policy of separating families at our southern border, against the Muslim ban, and for the replacement of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with, as Senator Warren said, “something that reflects our morality.”
Later that afternoon, I attended another rally with Movimiento Cosecha, a nonviolent movement activating the migrant community and the public at large to fight for permanent protection, dignity, and respect for all immigrants in the United States, particularly the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. I was moved by the stories I heard, mostly from young Latina women, of violence and abuse they suffered in Honduras and Guatemala, of separations from family, not at the border, but at the start of their northward migration, because a parent or sibling could not make the trip at the same time; of the terrifying journey and the uncertainty and fear they encountered once they were in the U.S.
Following the rally, we marched to South Bay prison, where some of those who’ve been arrested both locally and at the border are being detained, to offer support for them and call for an end to family separations. We stood outside the prison, holding signs and singing, and had a bit of communication with prisoners whose windows faced us. Some marchers intentionally failed to disperse when ordered to do so; about 20 were arrested for civil disobedience (as had been planned, in order to bring greater public attention to the plight of those recently detained by ICE and Border Patrol).
On a subsequent Tuesday, I joined Rabbi Susan Abramson and other clergy leaders at the ICE facility in Burlington for a Jericho Walk, a silent protest march. Coincidentally, an immigrant who’d been held in ICE custody was being released about the time our action was beginning, and he chose to walk with us. I learned from him that he had come from Honduras to escape violence and threats, was hoping to connect with a cousin already in the U.S. who he has been unable to reach, and was detained at the Mexican border and then incarcerated in Boston. One of the lucky few, he had been recently scheduled for an asylum hearing—but he was essentially being released thousands of miles from where he’d crossed, and without any plan for where he would live, work, eat or sleep during the several weeks until his hearing. You’ll be relieved, as I was, to learn a local organization stepped in and arranged for his care until his hearing.
My last action of the summer was to join Cantor Vera Broekhuysen and other clergy in our congressional district and the Merrimack Valley Project for a press release event, at which we published a clergy letter calling upon current congressional candidates to support the abolishment of ICE. Once again, we heard the voices of immigrants—people who’ve been working and building businesses and lives for themselves and their families for years—whose family members have recently been torn away from them and deported back to countries they barely remember.
Why, you might be wondering, did I spend my summer break marching and carrying signs and shvitzing?
Because I believe I have an obligation to call out the terrible policies currently enacted by this administration. Because families separated at our border are suffering irreparable psychological and physical harm. Because detaining 160 people at a single workplace in Paris, TX and creating an atmosphere of terror in the town is not in our nation’s best interests. Because families living in our neighborhood should not need a backup plan for their children every day, just in case mom or dad are detained for deportation while their kids are at school. These policies are inhumane, they are unjust, and they cannot be allowed to continue.
This morning we heard part of the story of Sodom. I selected this Torah reading because it has a parallel to our current situation. Why was Sodom destroyed? While the story has been interpreted as a warning against homosexuality, that is not how our tradition views it. Rather, Sodom was destroyed because of its radical inhospitality. As the very next verses in the Torah reveal, not only did the Sodomites fail to provide hospitality and care to strangers passing through, they victimized and tormented them.
Ezekiel 16:49 proclaims, “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.”
The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 109a adds, “[The people of Sodom] said: Since bread comes forth out of [our] earth, and it has the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling in our land.” This sounds very much like the rhetoric we are hearing in our own land today, suggesting immigrants are taking jobs and housing and food away from those who are already here, and that we must close our borders altogether to prevent them from taking what should be rightfully ours.
Our tradition teaches, not only were the Sodomites cruel to strangers, but when others in the community dared show any kindness or charity, they were punished, suggesting that the Sodomites “who deceived and attacked foreigners were the law-abiding ones.”
This is what alarms me, that cruelty can be justified as being carried out in accordance with the law. Rabbi Jill Jacobs admonishes us: “The current administration has imposed a policy that criminalizes all border-crossers, and eliminated two major reasons to apply for asylum.” To be clear: it is NOT illegal to apply for asylum, no matter how one entered the country. She continues, “the ancient rabbis understood that immoral societies such as Sodom justify themselves through the establishment of unjust and immoral laws… With Sodomites running our government, the challenge for every citizen is to refuse to normalize or justify the laws of Sodom.”
It’s not so very long ago that our own people were gathered, imprisoned, and murdered, all within the law. How can we stand silently by as these injustices are perpetrated today in our country?
Our Torah commands us not once, not twice, but 59 times, “welcome the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And we have been strangers many times, in many countries, over many centuries. We have been turned away and turned out, and the silence and complicity of others, and the closing of borders, have resulted in death for our people.
Listening to the young Latinas from Cosecha describing their flight from terror in their home countries reminded me of stories I heard as a child, accounts of my friends’ parents and aunts and cousins who fled Europe. They traveled in secret and without legitimate papers, they hid in laundry hampers, waste barrels and plumber’s boxes, they fled with their entire families, or a single sibling, or alone after losing their family. They were running for their lives, just as so many trying to cross into our country are doing.
We know the immigrant’s story because it is OUR story. And it is our obligation to notice, to speak out, and to offer assistance. The narrative spun by members of the administration and their supporters is simply untrue, and devised to sow fear and hatred. Immigrants coming into our country are not taking our jobs—they are often doing the jobs we refuse to do. They are not living off of our taxes—on the contrary, many are paying taxes and will never be eligible to receive any benefit from those dollars. They are in fact LESS likely to commit violent crimes than those who are already citizens of this nation.
But even if immigrants are adding some strain to our housing market or other aspects of our infrastructure – does it matter?
I’ve heard it said, “If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.” If we don’t have very much more than we need, why can we not sacrifice just a bit to make room for those who’ve arrived just a short while after we did?
May we all search our hearts for the compassion and generosity needed to make room at the table, to open our hands to the refugee, and to strive for justice and safety for those fleeing persecution, violence and tyrannical governments. May we each find within ourselves both the will and the energy to take steps to protect the most vulnerable, by activating our phones, our feet, our laptops, and our credit cards.
As we consider our fate, and that of others, in the year ahead, I offer you this Alternative Unetaneh Tokef, by Rabbi Joseph Meszler:
An Alternative Un’Taneh Tokef for Rosh Hashanah:
On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.
— Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler
Shana Tova tikateivu v’techateimu—may we each be written and sealed for a good year, and may we each work to ensure a good year for every person, within our borders, at our borders, and beyond our borders.