Loving the Stranger

February 15, 2013Rabbi David Saperstein

At the base of the Statue of Liberty, we read the famous words written from the voice of Lady Liberty herself – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” What is noteworthy, and often overlooked, in this poetic piece is that Lady Liberty is not merely inviting those who are persecuted or destitute to come to our soil – there is an aspect of an instruction, perhaps even a command, to it. Her desire, so often quoted as a hallmark of American hospitality, is in fact an insistence that those who have no options, no home, and no hope come to the United States where they will be received with open arms.

The idea of being instructed to be welcoming is not foreign to the religious community. In fact, the most repeated command in the Jewish tradition is to “love the stranger.” The question that we grapple with today – as a Jewish community, as a faith community, and as a broader American community – is what does this “love” look like? How do we translate our desire and our duty to “love the stranger” – an ambiguous and even impossible request – into concrete action?

For us, the first step toward love is identification. We Jews have a long and troubled history of persecution, and remember well the essential role the American immigration system played in our survival as a people. Most groups, most families, in our country have and know their own immigration history. Remembering these stories will instill in us the sort of compassion and recognition we need to proceed with a just and humanitarian reform process.

Another facet of “loving the stranger” involves procuring and ensuring safety and opportunity for those who are in need. This means enacting immigration reform to create a system that is humane, fair and practical. We need a framework that balances enforcement with justice, balances restoring the rule of law with protecting workers, and balances enhancing security with reuniting families.

The last crucial aspect of “love” that we hope to exhibit toward the strangers and immigrants in our midst is equality. Equality in the sense of being formally recognized by the law, and also in the sense of being expected and required to be full contributing members of our broader society. Equality is also welcoming all equally without regard to protected categories of identity, including the LGBT community that too often faces restrictions. Creating a system in which all new immigrants can better American communities through paying taxes, adding to the workforce, and participating in civic society will be a true manifestation of our love for and commitment to those who are strangers coming from abroad, as well as those who are strangers in our own United States.

Let us reaffirm our proud American history of not simply welcoming but actively inviting the stranger into our midst. We must join together and heed the call for comprehensive immigration reform.

This blog first appeared here.

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