Talking to My Daughter about the Refugee Crisis
While the resurgent displays of outright xenophobia, racism, and misogyny in our political discourse have been profoundly distressing for me, they have also put me in closer touch with my Jewish identity. Of course, this also means coming to terms with the prejudice that has exerted such a powerful force on the Jewish experience.
Although my daughter is far too young to understand the current migrant crisis or engage with how it relates to Jewish history, my wife and I have an obligation to impress upon her our moral duty as Jews to support immigrants and to instill in her the natural kinship she ought to feel for oppressed peoples all over the world. For us, anti-immigrant politics are antithetical to the spirit and values of Judaism.
We will teach her that, like today’s migrants coming to the U.S. from Central America, her own ancestors sought refuge in this country from poverty and violence. Fleeing from the segregation, discrimination, and persecution that defined life in the shtetls (small villages) of Eastern Europe, they and more than 2.5 million Jews between 1881 and 1914 left behind everything they knew to make a better life overseas.
We will teach her stories like that of the SS St. Louis, whose Jewish passengers fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe were denied entry to the U.S. in 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust – a grim reminder of the grave human consequences of xenophobia.
Yet we will also teach her how these experiences were crucial in forging the commitment to egalitarianism and social justice that defines our Judaism.
We will teach her the story of groups like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which started out assisting Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 19th century and evolved into an organization committed to supporting all refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
We will teach her how Reform clergy are leading the charge against nativism – establishing sanctuary congregations to protect those facing the threat of deportation, organizing protests in defiance of the administration’s Muslim ban, and coordinating efforts to protect undocumented people.
We will teach her how the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) has put immigration justice front and center by fighting for progressive policy changes to our immigration system and working with the undocumented community to provide material, financial, and legal support.
As she grows up in Reform Judaism, we hope she will get involved in NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement and take to heart its mission of youth-centered social activism – whether it’s working with refugees from Syria and Jordan through Mitzvah Corps, lobbying for change in Washington, D.C., working with LGBTQ youth in Israel through Beit Dror, or pursuing any of the countless other opportunities she will have to practice and live tikkun olam (repair of our world).
Most of all, we will teach her the words of Elie Wiesel: “Never be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”