The Immigrant Experience as Jewish Paradigm

Jewish kids statue liberty
Jewish refugee children from Austria wave at the Statue of Liberty as the President Harding steams into New York harbor (June 3, 1939).

One of defining features of the American Jewish experience is a shared, collective realization that all of us come from somewhere else. Many came here fleeing a revolution or pogrom or oppressive regime. Even if not, with rare exception, all Jews came to this country knowing the challenges of coming here as a stranger, if not refugee.

It is not in the last 150 years alone that we Jews have known the heart of the stranger. Our foundational identity as being wanderers (refuges, if you will) is at the heart of the opening verses of our parasha.  The Torah speaks to a people still in the wilderness, but anticipates a time when they will be settled in the land, prosperous, comfortable and secure.  At such a time, the Torah commands, the people of Israel were to take the first of their harvest and bring a basket of the fruit of the land to Jerusalem.  Then, they were told to speak ritual words of remembrance that their ancestor was  “a fugitive (or, perhaps, wandering) Aramean.” (Deuteronomy 26:6)

To be the outsider, then, is not just part of our recent historical reality as Jews. We are paradigmatic immigrants.  This identity with the stranger, of being a refugee is a defining characteristic of Jewish thought and values.  We speak of the Exodus from Egypt every Shabbat during Kiddush – a reminder of when we were strangers and had to flee.  The radical result of this is the Biblical insistence that even we are settled in our land – or maybe especially when we are settled and comfortable – that we remember what it is like to be a refugee.  No less than 36 times in the Torah we read that we are to help those who are strangers (the immigrant) because we know what it means to be one.  This is not just an act of compassion, but of shared experience.  As the Torah says, “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“My father was a fugitive, my mother a refugee” is a call not for just empathy, but a statement of solidarity. Those who leave their home – for economic betterment or  fleeing oppression – are not merely “strangers”.  They are, the Torah makes a claim, those who live our own story.

Today there are more refugees in the world than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  Yet the United States is increasingly making it difficult for those seeking freedom and refuge to come here.  Two years ago the US said it would take in 100,000 refugees (though only 80,000 came).  This year the number allowed in is only 45,000 (though to date in 2018 fewer than 20,000 have entered the US). At a time when refugee admittance is at its lowest in 40 years, it is fair to assume that only those at greatest personal risk (because of political or religious persecution) and deemed having the greatest chance of success are being considered eligible, and so the need to help those who are coming is even greater.

We say, “I am a wanderer” to remind ourselves that as Jews, informed by Jewish values and our history, is to know the heart of the refugee, the one who must flee for his or her life.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents were those who came to this country not knowing English, often unemployed or taking low paying jobs, hoping for freedom.  Those who come today are living our story. They deserve not only our support, but our understanding and respect.  “You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”