Knowing the Stranger
By Barbara Weitz, CJJ-West leader
At Passover, we are called to remember the plight of all peoples in the world who, like us, retell the stories of deliverance from slavery to freedom. This simple act of remembering has been repeated for hundreds of generations and continues to have a power and cultural currency beyond the holiday. Our own story remains a powerful source of identity and motivation for the descendants of the Israelites. We were exiled from our homeland and enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, and then stateless nomads for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, at the mercy of the elements, often losing faith as danger surrounded us.
Because of this history, Carolina Jews for Justice asks that we be particularly mindful of the plight of the non-citizens among us and the vulnerable status they face. The Passover story reminds us that we were once surrounded by a hostile majority people, with no rights, living in hardship and fear. Throughout history, the Jewish people have so often been refugees that much of Jewish history can be characterized as a history of constant migration, forced and voluntary relocation, and resettlement.
We must, now and forever, embrace the responsibility to know the “heart of the alien.” The Torah commands us to treat them as our brothers and sisters. We know what it is like to be abandoned and have no recourse under law, and so we must not stand idly by, indifferent to the plight of the desperate people at our Southern border. Recalling, in memory and metaphor, our obligations as human beings and as Jews to one another and to the stranger, we will recite our Haggadah’s direct explanation for these obligations. The Passover Seder is a brilliant way in which we not only retell the story of the Exodus but relive the story with ritual foods and symbols that reflect the dynamic of moving from slavery to freedom. As we follow the progress of the Seder, we literally taste the bitterness of oppression and are reminded of what it is feels like to be the stranger, unwelcomed, with no one to come to our aid. The simple act of telling the story of our deliverance and reflecting on it is little more than a start — and it carries the grave risk of sentimentality.
As we celebrate our festival of liberation and freedom, we must not ignore that we are living in an era when hatred has been unleashed and goes unchecked in our own country and throughout the world. The ugliness of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment is rampant. We live in a time and in a place where those seeking refuge are labeled as criminals, where children are forcibly separated from their parents and held in cells, where freedoms are trampled, and where the noble words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are made null and void. That brilliant light that guided our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents to this country with the promise of safety and equality is being dimmed. The Red Sea parted for us. The Rio Grande is, at some locations, just a narrow concrete ditch with a little trickle of water, separating our neighbors from a “Promised Land,” and yet it cannot be traversed.
What you can do this Passover:
- Incorporate a discussion or reading about immigration issues in your celebration. An excellent resource is T’ruah’s Guide to the New Sanctuary Movement. Other resources are available from T’ruah, including a new Haggadah, The Other Side of the River, the Other Side of the Sea, and HIAS has published an excellent Haggadah connecting Passover with the modern refugee crisis;
- Support local immigrant justice organizations, such as CIMA;
- Support Jewish organizations engaged in helping immigrants, including HIAS and the World Jewish Congress;
- Advocate for public policies that remove unnecessary barriers to immigration reform; for example, passage of the Dream Act.