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With Refugees in Need, Now Is Our Time to Act

With Refugees in Need, Now Is Our Time to Act

Group photo aboard the S.S. Flandre in 1939

“For you have known the heart of the stranger….” (Exodus 23:9)

The picture above shows my mother, Regina Ohringer, mostly hidden by the man in the white suit in the middle. On the right, you can see my Aunt Lottie. They were with their parents on the S.S. Flandre, a French ship that in May 1939, along with the German ship the St.Louis, was trying to bring its Jewish refugee passengers to freedom in Cuba.

When Cuba changed its mind, and would not let passengers disembark, the Flandre went to Miami Beach, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt instructed the U.S. Coast Guard to block the ship from docking. My mother and her family were forced to return to France, where a few weeks later, Nazis overran the country. Incredibly, a few kind Chicagoans eventually enabled my mother and her family to get to America in 1941.

Because of this personal history, I cannot stay silent when I see what is happening to legitimate refugees who are coming to America for the same reason my family – and maybe yours – arrived, so well captured by the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus engraved upon the Statue of Liberty:

“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!”

If we stop being a country that welcomes the poor, tired, and frightened, then we are no longer serving our famous mission, which President Ronald Reagan once called the “shining city upon a hill.” Obviously, we are required to protect ourselves from terror – but think of the countless Jewish refugees who were not allowed into America during the Holocaust because they might be Nazi spies. Think of the cruel American-Japanese internment camps. Have we, as a country, not matured in 70 years?

When, in the 1970s, my mother was well- established in this country, she began taking my twin brother and me along with her to furnish the homes of Russian Jews who were fleeing the U.S.S.R. and being welcomed in the U.S. I know that, in her own way, she was trying to give back for the gift of being welcomed in this country herself.

I hope all of us feel a debt to help others, just as we or our ancestors were helped.

My congregation, Temple Sholom of Chicago, had planned to welcome a refugee family this spring. Our “Sholom Justice” group will continue to do whatever it can to keep us ready for the time when we can enact our plan. In the meantime, please consider adding your voice to mine and to the countless others who refuse to allow our country to sink into cruel xenophobia.

You can start by visiting HIAS, an organization that specializes in refugee concerns. There, you will find ways to make your voice heard and an avenue to donate funds for resettlement.

You can also visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s immigration page, where you’ll find resources for urging your members of Congress to support immigration reform and learning about how to provide sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation.

To be a Jew is to know that we are never permitted to sit in comfort when the stranger cries out to us. Now is our time to act.

Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago.

Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg
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