I am Canadian. Often, this is immediately noticeable – I have an extensive collection of plaid shirts, an unabashed love of cold weather, and I tend to apologize a lot.
It’s important that you know this, not just because I’m proud of my heritage, but because it’s a key part of one of the most significant and trying events I’ve had in my life. An event that, remarkably, has changed my thinking on this Refugee Shabbat.
A little over three months ago, on the very first day when I was supposed to start working here at Sixth & I, I learned of a monumental bureaucratic error that meant I didn’t receive proper authorization to work legally here in the United States.
I was told that it could be up to a year before I would receive authorization.
I couldn’t officially start my job. So I volunteered my time and energy. But I couldn’t really be recognized for this thrilling new step in my life. I couldn’t post anything online, for fear that someone at Homeland Security might misinterpret it as me doing something illegal.
For the past three months, I’ve been waiting in the dark limbo that is United States Citizenship and Immigration applications, FBI background checks, and paying fees to the Department of Homeland Security.
I have felt as though I’ve been living in hiding. Never have I wanted so badly to have a Microsoft Outlook calendar and meeting invites – the markers of normalcy.
But last week, I received notice that my application was approved and my work authorization card was in the mail.
It was – to put it mildly – a tremendous relief. I can legally work in the US. I received a card that gives me that privilege. A tiny plastic card, with immense weight.
During these months of waiting, I crossed the border to Canada back and forth several times.
Each time, upon approaching the US immigration officials, I wondered: “is this it? Is this the time they don’t let me in?
Is this when I get hauled off to a room somewhere?”
Now, let me be clear: many, many people are in situations unimaginably worse than me. As nerve-wracking as this has been, I have systems of support and privilege that others only dream of: I’m a white guy, with a graduate degree. I have a family safe at home in Canada, and a community here at Sixth & I that has been nothing short of remarkable in their compassion, understanding, and patience.
But I caught a glimpse of the underbelly of the US immigration system. And while it’s worked out for me, for many, it’s downright oppressive.
I will not forget, when my partner and I were pulled aside at the border by officials for secondary screening, and she turned to me in the waiting room and whispered: “we’re the only ones in here who aren’t people of colour.”
There are people in situations unimaginably more dire and desperate than mine. I can’t forget that.
“In every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as though we came forth from Egypt. בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הֹוא יצא ממצרים,” we read at the Passover Seder.
If there was a bingo card of phrases you’d expect to hear at Refugee Shabbat, this teaching would be on the free square in the centre.
It’s the backbone idea behind Judaism’s near-constant insistence on not subverting the rights of the most vulnerable.
But as a result of my recent experiences, here’s what I’ve been wondering:
How many of us really know what it feels like to be a refugee?
How many of us actually know what it is like to flee for our very lives?
If we can’t know what this actually feels like, then how can we see ourselves as though we came out of Egypt?
How can we make this more than just a catchy phrase that risks coming off as virtue signaling?
Here’s what I know: it is terrifying to feel the instability of having your “status” held in the hands of an at-times opaque and Kafkaesque government agency.
Most people will never know what this feels like. But I wonder what political policy regarding refugees might look like if more people did.
Nine hundred years ago, a Jewish philosopher – himself a refugee – figured out the same idea. Rabbi Moses Maimonides was exiled from his home in Spain by anti-Jewish leaders, and forced to wander across North Africa in search of a new home.
And he was profoundly unsatisfied with this idea of seeing ourselves as though we came out of Egypt. How could you do that if you haven’t actually experienced such a trauma?!
So he made a small change: Don’t just see yourself as a refugee. Instead, he said: “In every generation, we are obligated to show ourselves as though we left Egypt. בכל דור ודור חיב אדם להראות את עצמו כאלו הֹוא יצא ממצרים”
It’s just one Hebrew letter that makes the difference between seeing and showing. But the implications are huge.
Showing ourselves that we left Egypt requires that we not simply think or imagine ourselves as having left Egypt – something internal – but that we manifest that inherited experience externally.
It’s not an act of thinking, but an act of doing.
We are meant to walk responsibly through the world, showing empathy, understanding, and compassion.
But what does this actually look like?
I want to acknowledge the tension that a lot of us might feel around the issue of refugees:
We might be certain that we should open our doors wide and let everyone in – that refugees are a boon to the economy and our cultural growth. That’s probably the sermon you thought you’d be hearing from the rabbi on Refugee Shabbat. But it’s not. Surprise!
Or, you might believe that while we should be sympathetic to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, that’s an entirely different matter from welcoming in tens of thousands of people who might place extra pressure on an already strained welfare system.
I want to say that as painful as it is, this is an opinion that has some valid Jewish backing. Judaism has always advocated concentric circles of care, with a valid and justifiable commitment to our own tribe.
But if you’re going to argue from this point of view, the question you also have to confront is:
What do you do with the immensity of force that Judaism also marshals to say: we have to protect the rights of the most vulnerable among us? Particularly those who come from somewhere else in search of safety and security.
To ignore this message is not only intellectually dishonest, but profoundly thoughtless.
This is the challenge we face when trying to bring the energy of our religious and moral philosophies to modern political policies. Sometimes they don’t map out perfectly. And I want to acknowledge and affirm that difficulty. It can feel overwhelming.
But what we can’t do; what thousands of years of Jewish history does not permit us to do; is be apathetic. We can’t sit back and hope others will act. This is what Maimonides wanted us to know, it’s the legacy he leaves for us:
Yes, in every generation, you have to see yourself as if you’re a refugee. But you can’t really do this. Maimonides knew this, and he was a refugee!
The message for us is that we can’t think of ourselves as having once been refugees. This can’t just be an intellectual exercise. We have to show ourselves what it means to have inherited this history.
So forget hoping for the perfect sympathetic thoughts. You have to show, and the way you show is by doing.
This is hard on humans, because our inclination is to be motivated by our feelings or personal connection to something. But this is not an option in Judaism. You don’t get to excuse yourself just because you don’t feel something. So let go of the feel.
I realized this while waiting for my status. I could see the trying experiences of others, and even though it was hard for me, too, I had to give up on imagining that I could ever feel like a Jewish slave from thousands of years ago in Egypt, or like an asylum seeker from Syria today. I gave up on hoping that I could see myself in that light, and instead, focused on doing.
Wherever you land on what to do: from supporting international development so that there will be fewer refugees to begin with… to welcoming with open arms thousands of those fleeing persecution… our work must be active.
HIAS does this, and they do it well. The JCC here in DC has opportunities for volunteering, mentorship, and support.
We’ll hear more later this evening about what you can start doing. There are easy first steps. And if these specific options don’t agree with your contemporary politics, that’s okay.
But you’re not free to walk away.
And do it.
Because you can’t bring about a more just world if you only wait for the right feeling to come along. There’s too much competing for your attention today. It’s overwhelming, and you’ll never get anything done. That’s why we must build a habit of doing:
B’chol dor vador. In every generation. Not just when we have the right feeling. Always.
Chayav adam: it is an obligation. Not just a good idea or just words in a slogan, but part of the very DNA of how we understand our responsibilities.
L’harot et atzmo: to show ourselves – not just to feel, but to actually get up and do something, actively.
K’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim: To show ourselves, and each other, and the world, that the measure of our humanity is not found in economic strength or military might, or social media reach. But by how much we care for the most vulnerable among us, regardless of where they come from.
Kein y’hi ratzon.
May this be the world we build together.