The Stranger

On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump signed an executive order to change the separation policy after a tumultuous week. We have watched the ongoing saga of the “zero tolerance” policy for migrant families and the separation of children from their families – more than 2,000 since the policy was implemented in May. This change, however, does not address the issue holistically as it leaves current families separated and would keep entire families in ICE detention centers, likely in violation of existing law. Though these policies are changing quickly, until indefinite detention is prohibited and children and parents seeking asylum are reunited and detained in humane conditions, continued advocacy is needed. 

For many, this policy undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people.   The Jewish Federation signed on to this letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, along with 55 national Jewish organizations and 292 state and local Jewish organizations sharing our outrage and concerns.

It is important for our community to contact our legislators and share your thoughts and opinions on this issue. At the same time, and just as important, acknowledge them for forcefully speaking out. Our legislators were loud, vocal, and even spoke with their feet.

As far back as the Bible, to be a Jew is to be a stranger. The story of the refugee is a fundamental part of our narrative. It starts with the first Jew, Abraham, “Avraham Ha’Ivri,” literally “Abraham From The Other Side” — God tells him, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs…” 

In parashat Mishpatim, we learn of many laws pertaining to social justice, including the provision of interest-free loans that our Jewish Free Loan program is based on. The first and last of these laws, however, is the repeated command against harming a stranger. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In fact, the Torah warns against the wronging of a stranger 36 times.

On several occasions the Torah specifies: “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.” Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare provisions of society. But the law goes beyond this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The text reminds us multiple times that we were once strangers, because it understands innately that human nature is to forget. Especially as we grow privileged and comfortable in our new lands, perhaps the many commandments to love the stranger —repeated again and again — show just how much we need that reminder of our past. 

From Hitler’s Berlin to Soviet Moscow, from fundamentalist Teheran to chaos-ridden Ethiopia — throughout our history, and in the past century in particular, our people have fled and sought refuge in foreign lands, desperate for the chance to live peacefully. 

In stark contrast,  in recognition of World Refugee Day on Wednesday (and hours before President Trump’s change in policy), I attended a United States Naturalization Ceremony at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Eight individuals from El Salvador, Gambia, Ukraine, Mexico, Moldova, Iraq and Bangladesh were sworn in as American citizens. They were so proud. They were inspiring. And all I could do was think of those parents and children at the border who one day could also become American citizens.

I can recall in 1998, while living in Baltimore, attending a Naturalization Ceremony with over 500 Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). It was so powerful. They risked so much coming to this country. At the same time, they knew remaining in the FSU would grant them no freedoms and limited opportunities. They made the commitment to become citizens of this great country.

I recognize that the issue of immigration is highly charged in our country. Let us also recognize that all American Jews are connected to an immigrant story. We understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression. The United States is a nation of immigrants and how we treat the stranger reflects on the moral values and ideals of our country. And together, with our voices and those of others, we can do what is right and just.

May our country and each of us live up to the highest of ideals.

Shabbat shalom and enjoy the start of summer.



PS – Here are a few great events Federation has helped sponsor you may wish to participate:

• This Saturday is the Israel@70 Celebration through Dance at the MJCC. Enjoy Israel dancing with your whole family.

• This Sunday is the first Outdoor Concert Series at the MJCC featuring Lior Ben-Hur and Sol Tevel. You will enjoy Reggae music while incorporating Jewish melodies.

• This is the closing weekend for the Portland Jewish Film Festival. Last chance to see some great films.

Join the community next Wednesday night at Jewish Heritage Night at the Portland Thorns soccer game at Providence Park. Tickets are only $18. 


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