Every year at the beginning of our seder, I read the following excerpt from my late father’s ethical will:
“Of all the festivals,” he wrote, “Pesach is the most precious to me. It not only encompasses the concepts of liberty and freedom but also the importance of the family. Everything about this holiday — its preparation and the sedarim — are most vivid in my memory from my earliest childhood days. Being only a second-generation American Jew — born of whose parents endured great hardship in the land of Russian czarism and who arrived on these shores in the first decade of the 20th century — I was deeply aware of the greatness and opportunities of America. Our house was always open for the cousins and the ‘landsleit’ who emigrated from their hometowns in Europe before and after World War I. The stories about their struggles to find a livelihood or even to exist were many … and I was proud and glad to hear about the promises that America held for them.”
Fast forward to 2017: Our American society is in the throes of a massive shift in our policies towards immigrants. Millions are now living in abject fear, uncertain of their destiny or what tomorrow may bring.
In January, along with 1,925 other rabbis across America, I “signed-on” to a letter generated by HIAS — an organization with deep roots in our American Jewish community — urging our elected officials to keep our nation’s doors open to refugees.
Appearing in Politico, the Forward and other national publications, the text of the letter — with a list of signatories — was also sent to every congressional office and to prominent governmental leaders throughout America.
It reads in part: “Faced with the largest refugee crisis in all of human history, the United States must continue to be a safe haven for people fleeing religious persecution, genocide and terror. … Our Jewish tradition teaches that every individual was created in the image of God. We must not turn our backs to the suffering of those who have fled horrific violence and who continue to be in extreme peril. … Furthermore, Jewish history bears witness to the critical choice facing our country: whether to rescue those in need or to construct barriers to keep them out. Jews have seen America at its best — and we know what it looks like for our country to provide a chance at a new beginning.”
The letter concludes by appealing to our elected officials to ensure that our refugee program be maintained and strengthened, not halted, paused or restricted.
More than any other directive, the Torah reminds us — 36 times — not to oppress the stranger, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the essence of the Passover narrative. Yes, our nation’s refugee policy is a complicated, highly-charged issue with a range of perspectives. But of this I am certain: We must be engaged, passionate and energized about what matters to us.
To me, the most compelling message of the seder emerges from the words: “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we personally went forth from Egypt.” Our celebration of Passover demands a visceral empathy with those for whom freedom and security remain elusive. Otherwise, the language and rituals of the seder are mere lip-service.
As American Jews, we must not forget that we are a community of immigrants — most of us only a few generations removed from the intensity and complexity of the immigrant experience. Many of us have achieved the “American dream” at a level that our immigrant forebears could hardly imagine. But our success and affluence should be coupled with compassion for those who do not enjoy our advantages.
At our seder, we always include a spirited reading of Emma Lazerus’ immortal poem, “The New Colossus,” its phrases inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Its message is especially poignant and timely this year:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Jonathan A. Schnitzer is the rabbi of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.