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Speaking Out for the Strangers in My Land

Speaking Out for the Strangers in My Land

“When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

It would be reasonable to assume that you’ve heard this quote before. During Passover, we recall the Exodus from Egypt, and we use this proof text to remind us of the value of Hachnasat Orchim – to welcome the strangers so they do not feel so out of place. After all, from our own collective historical experience, we Jews have known what it is to be strangers in a strange land, to feel unwelcomed and unwanted.

That is why it is so hard for me to believe that we Jews, whose social conscience is informed by our text and our history, don’t do more to speak out about issues of immigration and naturalization in the United States. Have we so soon forgotten what it meant to us when we Jews were expelled from our homes in Europe? Do we no longer hear the stories of our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents who traversed great odds in search of a better life? If so, then not only have we forgotten what it meant to be a stranger and endure hardships, but we have also become deaf and blind to those around us. For every time we see the struggles of the immigrant and the stranger, we should be reminded of the trials and tribulations that our people faced time and time again.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

The author of this post, Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, is a 2012-2013 Brickner fellow.

As a proud member of the Queens Clergy United for Action (QCUA), an interfaith community organizing team, I am reminded daily of the struggles our immigrants here in Queens, and throughout the country, face as they look to build better lives for themselves. The majority of people of faith in Queens County belong to the Catholic Church and are an overwhelmingly Latino population. Many of the families in our neighborhoods are deeply affected by issues related to immigration and naturalization: employment, education, legal issues and deportation. As a result, we are actively engaged with these communities to try and address their needs, not from a legal standpoint but from a humane standpoint, rooted in faith and compassion. The QCUA is holding press conferences and partnering with non-profit organizations to try and gain the attention of lawmakers and federal administrators in order to slow deportation and increase the number of hard-working, law-abiding families allowed to stay together in the United States.

Undeniably, there has always been tension between the value of welcoming the stranger and the fear of draining resources on those who are not already a part of a particular system. And this issue can be politically divisive, indeed. But I am not a part of a political organization. I am a part of a faith network that believes that we can work together as a community of humans to help out our neighbors and our friends. I am informed by my moral obligation to help out those who are trying to create better opportunities for themselves so that they can live the most productive and useful lives possible. I am reminded of my great grandparents who traveled thousands of miles to begin a new life for our family, so that I wouldn’t know hardship or struggle. Instead, I know freedom, I know opportunity, and I know truth. It is my responsibility, as a member of my family, as a member of my faith and as a member of the human race, to not just welcome in the stranger, but to also address his or her needs, to remember the difficulties of the past, and to be the beacon of light and hope that once helped our people so many years ago.

I beg of you: Do not let this fall on deaf ears or be blind to your eyes. Look around you – in your community, in the news, everywhere. Find out what the needs of the strangers in your land are and find out how you can help. Send a letter to your Members of Congress, sponsor a forum at your synagogue, church or mosque, and learn about the issues facing your community and the status of immigrants where you live.

The Torah teaches us to honor our mother and our father. More broadly, we need to honor those who came before us and paved the way for us so that our lives would be able to take shape. Those who came before me once faced the issues that our immigrants now face – they feel alone, scared, unsure of whether they can stay or go, and they don’t always know where to turn to for help. As a fellow human being, I feel empathetic to their struggle. As a Jew, I feel obligated to help. I can think of no greater honor to give my ancestors and my people than to be a voice that speaks out for the strangers in my land.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood is Associate Rabbi Educator at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in New York, NY, and a 2012-2013 Brickner fellow.

Published: 6/15/2012

Categories: Social Justice
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