On Tishah B'Av, a Response to the Immigration Crisis on the U.S.-Southern Border
Quite often, I remember my great bobe and zayde (grandma and grandpa) and the little village in Belarus they left to make a life here. I never saw the inside of their village, but I do remember my visits to their home as a child, and can still feel the bristle of my great zayde’s mustache on my cheek when he kissed me and greeted me. I feel called into Jewish activism by their legacy. And tonight I hear them and their generation speaking to me. They are asking: What did you learn from us? What did you learned from what has occurred to us in Europe and then here in the U.S.? What was the oppression we fled? And I hear them telling me of the help given to them when they arrived in this country – the shelter, food, and communal support they needed when they had nowhere else to turn.
These compelling questions are carried with me as I look at what is occurring on our southern borders, here in the U.S. My eyes have become focused on the volatile situation wherein nearly 60,000 children from Central America have streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border, in a huge wave of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Thousands of these children have been fleeing Central America, yet the response from much of our nation’s leaders in Washington has been to argue for a path by which our nation can ignore or repeal existing immigration statutes, and manage to swiftly deport these children back to their devastated home countries. It makes me listen again to the voice of my great grandparents, asking, What have you learned from us? Don’t you remember our history?
Rep. Beto O’Rourke from El Paso, TX, remembers. He has tried in recent weeks to call our White House and Congress to account. First on humanitarian grounds, the Congressman argues that our country has set up a system designed to help us accept and shelter such children as "asylum seekers." But the congressman has also called the U.S. leadership to account as owners of this Central American problem, tied to our history of involvement and engagement with their corrupt governments. With drug trafficking being one of the biggest problems in Central America, he reminds us it is the U.S. that is itself the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs trafficked through these children’s countries of origin. So in a way, the U.S. has helped create the situation in which these children would be in harm’s way. Thus, you would think we would dedicate some of our energies to help these children find safety and well-being. You would hope at the very least we’d come together to try and improve life in these Central American societies, if only to stem a future tide of migrant children running to our borders. You would want us to use the status of ‘asylum seeker’ already within our immigration law to create a path out of the limbo in which these children now find themselves.
But what has happened instead? The bulk of the U.S. response to the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children, fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America, has been an angry pushback from those who are so indifferent to their plight so as to oppose plans to even temporarily shelter these children. In other words, we are hearing from public officials and fellow citizens that we should set aside our compassion and let these children rot in the hell of their countries of origin, or to rot right here across our borders, in a pit where we’ve poured a toxic mix of apathy and self-righteousness that will eventually drown these children.
Friends, what I’m saying is that unless we change course now, as we in the Jewish community approach Tishah B’Av, the holiday of remembrance for the calamity of baseless hatred leading to exile, we are fostering on our southern border – another mournful and avoidable calamity. And if our Jewish community in the U.S. does nothing, it would be a bushah, a term in Hebrew referring to a permanently stain on our moral character and a humiliation before the world.
As Jews we know better. Because of our history, because of the calamities and exiles we have suffered, we can be our nation’s permanent witnesses to the need to bring compassion to the suffering. As Jews living in America, we know and can teach others that a return from exile, that redemption and salvation and hope are even possible. Going all the way back to the bible, we acted for redemption and hope and then sought to place our actions into context. When offered the commandments of a Godly covenant, our people responded to God: “Na’aseh V’nishmah. We will act!" We will do, and then we will understand.
I have long believed in such activism at a time of tension and crisis. It has undergirded my previous activism to support immigration reform in our country. Together with other rabbis organizing to support immigration reform, I have spoken to congressional leaders about their taking action to strengthen the immigration system, and encouraged those in the Jewish community to not let our Jewish values and ideals, nor our history as a border-crossing people, stand in isolation from the ways in which we advocate to improve our modern society.
That message moved the founders of my synagogue to create a community nearly 180 years ago on the backs of immigrants who sought shelter in this U.S. They sought the opportunity to live freely in American cities and towns, wary of how a tempting freedom in this nation might pry them from loyalty to Jewish ideals. But that we, the children, grand and great-grandchildren of those immigrants, must refuse to set aside our Jewish ideals of justice alongside our commitment to strengthen our nation. This moment in time - in which our country struggles for the right path forward to respond to these migrant children at our border from Central America – is a perfect time to act on our idea.
In the coming days, our U.S. House of Representatives is preparing to take a vacation, without taking action on either the Senate proposal from last term to overhaul the immigration system, or the current proposal to respond to this crisis we are in right now on our Southern Border. While children are in harm’s way, it is possible that our nation’s congressman on all sides of the aisle will let potential remedies to the broken immigration system lay there- indifferently, to die – like thousands of children unsheltered by the U.S. will if we deport them back to Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. They will die there. Cause of death: our indifference to their plight.
In an article in the New York Times, Rabbi Asher Knight warned of the consequences of inaction or deportation of these Central American children by deportation. He said, with regards to the flow of immigrant children: “We’re talking about whether we’re going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside.” He explained that leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in Dallas had met with Rabbi Knight last week to discuss how to help. He said that in his congregation, some were comparing the flow of immigrant children to the Kinder-transport, a rescue mission in the late 1930s that sent Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain for safekeeping. Rabbi Knight asked: “The question for us is: How do we want to be remembered, as yelling and screaming to go back, or as using the teachings of our traditions to have compassion and love and grace for the lives of God’s children?”
How do we want to be remembered? That is, in a way, the question, isn’t it? How do we want to be remembered? In our Torah at the conclusion of the Book of Numbers, Moses accounts for every single place the Israelites ever encamped in the wilderness. He tells us how long they stayed and how long it took them to travel to the next encampment. Our rabbinical commentaries tell us that it is necessary to do so because Moses wanted the Israelites to remember to connect their origins and their wanderings, so that they should always be mindful of where they had come from, and the journey across a chaotic border into a new place of integrity, wholeness, and true promise. Judaism tells us that our history is our anchor, so critical to our outlook that we must pause and remember incidents that happened a long time ago- such as the temple’s destruction, or the pogroms in Europe, or the Kindertransport.
To emphasize their point, the rabbis tell us a story. The story is about a king, a king who had a son that was seriously ill and who needed to travel to a distant village far away and across many challenges in order to cure him. The journey to the distant village was indeed difficult. Several times, the boy fell so ill that the father had to stop, and he wondered how he could go on as his child’s condition was touch and go. But he continued, and once they reached their destination, the boy recovered. But on the way home, the father did something very Jewish – something I’m asking each of us to do as we weigh our feelings on this immigration crisis we are currently facing in our country.
What did the father do? On the way back to their home, the king stopped in each of the places where the boy’s illness had forced them to rest on the way out. In each place, he told his child what had happened there: where they had slept, who had helped them soothe the boys wounds, where he had cried out to God in prayer, and where the boy’s situation had become better or worse for the wear and tear of the journey.
I pray that we, too, do just as the king did for his son. As we approach the upcoming Tishah B’Av, as we try to avoid a Tishah B’Av-type of calamity right here in the U.S., let us look back to our own people’s story. Let us remember where they found hope and where they laid down and wept for the loss of Zion. For where we have rebelled, where we have quarreled, where we’ve been divided, and where we came to unity have all have been part of our journey.
One day we will arrive at our destination. We’ll be home. But until then, may we live and act with promise, look out at the world with hope, and redeem our world’s children from oppression, chaos, violence, and baseless hatred.
Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk is the senior rabbi of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH. This is an abbreviated version of a d’var Torah he gave at Shabbat services on Friday, July 25. Read the entirety of Rabbi Nosanchuk’s d’var Torah.