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Have We Forgotten What It Means to Be Outsiders?

Have We Forgotten What It Means to Be Outsiders?

Recently, I stopped into my bank to break a couple of twenties into smaller denominations. As is often the case, I faced a rather long line, but I decided to stay calm and go with the flow. After a few moments, though, I was relieved when a roving manager walked over and asked if he could be of assistance. After I explained my high finance, he responded that he would be delighted to help. Though I had prepared myself for a long wait, I will admit that I was very happy that my stay in the bank was going to be significantly shortened.

“Do you have your bank card?” the manager inquired. Without hesitation, I pulled the card from my wallet and handed it to him. He quickly secured the smaller bills I had requested.

When I left the branch, I realized – yet again – how privileged I am. There are many people living in our midst who could not have gotten this little bit of extra service because they don’t possess a bank card. No bank card? No…because they have no bank account.

I have had a bank account since I was a child. Isn’t that normal for all of us? We might think so, but actually it isn’t. There are millions of our neighbors who cannot open a bank account because they don’t have the necessary documents to qualify.

These folks clean our homes, they mow our lawns, and they care for our children. But they can’t so easily exchange two twenties for smaller bills—something most of us take for granted.

We all know that our immigration system needs to be repaired, but that is not my point. I am not writing today about immigration reform, as important as that topic is. The concern that entered my mind when I walked out of the bank was: How do we feel about the people in our midst, and how do we relate to them?

For much of Jewish history, we have been outsiders in most of the societies in which we’ve lived. From our long years as slaves in Egypt, we internalized the message: Know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers. If we forget this lesson from time to time, sitting in synagogue and listening to the Torah being read will be a good reminder, for this is a key message of our religion, and it is repeated over and over again.

I fear, however, that many of our Jews are not in synagogue and are not studying Torah. We are so busy pursuing the American dream – and often achieving it – that we have lost the sense of being outsiders. More than that, we have lost our feeling for those who are still on the outside.

Genesis teaches that every person is created in the Divine image. Knowing that, we are instructed to greet each person as if we were greeting God. Yet, too often, we don’t greet others at all; we look right past them.

We are commanded to be rachmanim, b’nai rachmanim – compassionate ones, children of compassionate ones. Let us not lose sight of who we are called to be.

Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein is founding rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA. For many years, he served as co-chair of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Outreach, Membership, and Sacred Community. He is past vice-president for member services of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association of Reform rabbis in North America.

Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein
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