Immigration, Terrorism, and History – Parashat Bo 5777

I am the child of a stateless refugee.

My grandfather, Israel, was from Lodz, Poland, and my grandmother, Feiga, was from Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine.  Each of them fled East from the Nazi advance – the only members of their families to escape and survive.

They both made their way to the Soviet Georgian town of Poti, on the Black Sea – which was beyond the Nazis’ advance into the Soviet Union.  In 1943, my grandmother’s landlady thought they would make a nice couple, so she introduced them.  They were married 6 weeks later.   After the war, they returned to Poland to search for surviving relatives, without success.  When pogroms broke out, they escaped to the West, and ended up in an American-run Displaced Persons camp in an Rosenheim, West Germany.  They applied for a visa to come to America.  My grandfather had an older sister, Bella, who had emigrated to the United States in 1930 and settled in Long Beach, California.  She sponsored their application.

My father, Carl, was born in the DP camp in 1948.  They did not receive the visa until he was three years old.  By that time, the DP camp had actually closed down.  Finally, in June 1951, my father and grandparents arrived at Ellis Island aboard the USS General M.B. Stewart.

I have grown up with this story.  I always kind of wondered why it took my grandparents so long to receive their visa – but never looked into it.  Over the last couple of weeks, as issues around immigration and refugees has exploded across our country, I have been thinking a lot about my own family’s journey.

I asked my father why it took so long to get the visa.  He explained that the United States had annual refugee quotas, and that there was no preference given to Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust.  So they simply had to wait their turn.

Searching online for information, I came across the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and discovered that more than 51 million passenger records have been scanned and recorded in a searchable database.  I ran a query for the name Berkenwald, and was surprised to discover records for 21 people.  All of them had originated from Lodz, Poland, so I am almost certain that they are all relatives.  It is remarkable because we thought we knew about all of our surviving family members.

The earliest immigrant on the list, 21 year old Schmul Leib Berkenwald, arrived in 1906.  Two Berkenwald’s arrived in 1921.  (Remember that year.)  One came in 1938, leaving from Belgium.  Five managed to arrive during World War Two, a pair leaving from Spain in 1941 and a mother and her two daughters coming from the United Kingdom.  Twelve Berkenwald’s came as refugees after the war, including my father, listed as Calel, and my grandparents, Feiga and Israel.

America is a nation of immigrants.  Each of us has stories about how we arrived.  Some people in this room are themselves immigrants, and even refugees.  But the truth is, as the Jewish people, we are all immigrants and refugees.

This morning’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the final moments before our Israelite ancestors leave Egypt.  The story takes a break from the narrative to record instructions for observing Passover.  It specifies symbolic rituals that are to be reenacted every year.  We are to slaughter and eat the paschal lamb on matza and maror, with loins girded, sandals on feet and staff in hand.  We are to remove hametz from our homes and eat only unleavened bread for seven days.  Our Passover seder today is directly based on these instructions given to Moses over three thousand years ago.

What does the seder recall and celebrate?  The Exodus, after four hundred years, of our people from the oppressive Egyptians.  Looked at from a different angle, it is a celebration of the moment when our ancestors became political refugees.  They wandered for forty years through the wilderness, homeless and stateless.  It was essentially a refugee camp, not too dissimilar from refugee camps in the Middle East today.

As the Torah progresses, it hammers home our memory of being strangers in a strange land.  We cannot forget what it was like to have been aliens living in Egypt.  Jewish tradition instructs us to recall our redemption from slavery every single day.

It is not only the ancient past.  We have experienced persecution, exile, and statelessness over and over throughout our history.

That memory must make us compassionate to strangers living among us.  The Torah repeatedly tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst.  Citizens and non-citizen alike must be treated with the same set of laws.

These are the ideals of our tradition.  In the real world, however, things get more complicated.  Nations cannot simply throw open their borders and allow anyone who wants to come in.  Governments’ primary responsibilities are to those who are already living in the country.  So it is absolutely legitimate to screen potential immigrants before their arrival.  The dilemma we face now is how many immigrants we ought to be accepting, and which ones.

I am certain that everyone in this room has an opinion about these questions.

Before we get too locked in our beliefs, I ask that we first consider a couple of things.  First, let’s each think about our own family history.  How did each of us end up in America?  Those of us who are not immigrants, at some point had ancestors who arrived on these shores from somewhere else.  What compelled them to make the journey?  What were they leaving behind – were they seeking opportunity, or fleeing persecution?  What kind of welcome did they find when they arrived?

It is important to recall our personal stories, because it reminds us that government policies have impacts on the lives of individuals and families.  Just imagine if, when your relatives wanted to immigrate, immigration policies had been more restrictive and they were turned away.

The second thing we ought to all consider is the history of immigration into the United States.  President Trump’s Executive Order titled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” did not appear out of a vacuum.  Our nation has a long history.  Before any of us takes a stand on this issue, we ought to know what has come before.

So please allow me to summarize the past 135 years of US immigration and refugee policy.

Since the founding of our nation, there have been many laws which regulate who can be admitted into the country as immigrants.  Some of those laws expanded immigration, while others limited it.

The first immigration law to restrict a particular ethnic group from coming to America was passed by Congress in 1882.  It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Initially, it was meant to last ten years, but it was so popular that Congress renewed it in 1892 and made it permanent in 1902.

Large numbers of mostly male Chinese workers had immigrated beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848.  They continued as laborers for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.  As the economy declined in the 1870’s after the Civil War, fear of the “Yellow Peril” increased.  Chinese workers were blamed for driving down wages.  Chinese residents had already been banned from becoming US citizens.  The new law imposed a total ban on Chinese immigration.  Anyone who left the country needed to have special certification in order to reenter.  This meant that husbands could neither sponsor their wives to join them from China, or themselves go to visit their families.

The law was overturned in 1943 in deference to the US’s alliance with China during World War Two.  The new legislation allowed Chinese residents in the US to become naturalized citizens.  With regard to immigration, it expanded the national quota – to 105 Chinese immigrants per year.

Until the 1920’s, Chinese were the only immigrant group that was specifically targeted by law.

After World War One, huge numbers of Europeans were fleeing the devastation that had been wreaked on their homelands.  Immigration to the United States exploded.  At the same time, the US economy took a downturn as war-spending declined.  The result was predictable: anti-immigrant backlash.

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first to broadly restrict immigration.  It marked the beginning of nativism in the United States.  It established literacy requirements and created classes of inadmissible people.  It banned all immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone, a huge swath of territory defined by latitude and longitude which included the Arabian Peninsula, India, Afghanistan, Asiatic Russia, and more.  Nobody who lived there would be allowed in the country.

In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which introduced the National Origins Formula.  For the first time, the US imposed immigration quotas.  It worked like this: The 1910 US census included records of the numbers of foreign-born residents currently living in the United States, divided up by country of origin.  3% of the total number from each country would be permitted to immigrate each year.

The National Origins Formula was originally designed to be temporary, but it became permanent three years later when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924.  The new act changed the formula.  The percentage would decrease to 2%, with an annual ceiling that would severely reduce the total number of permitted immigrants.  Instead of the 1910 census, immigration would now be based on the 1890 census.

Furthermore, relative percentages from each country were now going to be based on the overall proportion of all naturalized citizens, including those whose families had been in the United States for generations.  This was designed to give a tremendous preference to new immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany, who were seen as racially superior.

It was also meant to reduce immigration by Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Africans.  It worked as intended.  86% of the 155,000 permitted immigrants in the first year came from Northern European countries.  The restrictions were so great that in 1924, there were more people from the undesirable countries that left the United States than who entered it.

The law was not controversial.  It passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 9 to 18, with strong bipartisan support.  It was rooted in beliefs in eugenics that were popular at the time.  One of the architects of the law, Senator David Reed, complained that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard – that is, the people who were born here.”  He claimed that Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews arrived sick and starving and were less capable of contributing to the American economy and adapting to American culture.

In 1932, President Hoover shut down nearly all immigration.  1933 saw just 23,000 foreigners move to the United States.

Throughout the 1930’s on average, more people emigrated from the US than immigrated to it.    Under the Mexican Repatriation Movement from 1929 to 1936, as many as 2 million people were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, many without any due process.  Significant numbers of the deportees were actually US citizens at the time.

Most Jewish would-be immigrants throughout the 1930’s were refused admission.

Things began to swing the other way in 1952.  The Immigration and Nationality Act changed the quotas, basing them on the 1920 census.  It also removed racial distinctions.

Finally, in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments abolished the National Origins Formula.  It put limits on immigration based on hemisphere.  For the first time, there was a limit for immigration from the Western Hemisphere – 120,000 per year.  The Eastern Hemisphere was given 170,000.  It also established a seven-category preference system, giving priority, for example, to potential immigrants with relatives who were US citizens, and to those with professional or specialized skills.

In subsequent years, further refinements have been made.  Many of these changes should be understood in light of the rise of globalization and the increasing ease of movement around the world.  The 1980 Refugee Act established policies for refugees, redefined refugees according to UN norms; and set a target for 50,000 refugees annually.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan, established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and provided amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.

The 1990 Immigration Reform and Control Act increased immigration limits to 700,000 annually, and increased visas by 40%.  It also increased the amount of employment-related immigration.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed laws to expand the categories of criminal activities that could lead to deportation.  As of 2013, this legislation had resulted in the deportation of more than 2 million people.

Recent years have also seen resolutions by Congress and the California Legislature apologizing for discriminatory immigration policies of the past, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Repatriation movement.

It is a long and complicated history.  Ours is a nation of immigrants, and yet we have gone through periods of time when the ideals of freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution were not necessarily reflected in our immigration policies.  The overall trend since the end of World War Two has been to establish a fair and equitable system of immigration that provides a steady inflow of people from around the world who will assimilate into American culture and contribute to the flourishing of the country.  America has also been a haven for persecuted individuals who enter as refugees.  That is why I am standing here today.

In periods of restricting immigration to the United States, we have seen some of the same kinds of fears expressed as we are witnessing today: Immigrants take jobs from Americans.  They depress wages.  They will not be able to assimilate American values.  They will change the demographic mix of the country and disrupt American culture.

Are these valid concerns?

We each have our opinions.  But I would urge all of us to acknowledge that these same claims have been made in the past when other groups have been excluded, including Jews.

A fear that is widely expressed today is that by accepting Muslim refugees specifically, we open the doors to potential terrorists who would try to take advantage of weak vetting policies.

That is the stated reason for President Trump’s Executive Order.  By the way, if we are going to express an opinion about it, it behooves us to read it first.  Some elements might be a good idea.  The President instructs the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, and the Directors of National Intelligence and the FBI to conduct reviews and submit reports of the status of various aspects of our current vetting procedures for visas and immigration and to create more rigorous screening procedures.

The sections that have generated so much controversy, and that should be viewed in light of our nation’s immigration history, is the outright banning of all travel by any person from those seven countries, the total halting of all refugee resettlement for 120 days, the indefinite halting of acceptance for all Syrian refugees, and the implied favoring of Christian refugees over Muslims.

Consider two questions:  1.  Are these steps consistent with our nation’s values?  2.  Do they address a problem that actually exists?

There is an underlying flaw with the whole thing.  Terrorism-generated fear is vastly overweighted and thus leads to really bad policy.  That is precisely why terrorists do what they do.  They want governments to overreact.

How many people have actually been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by people born in foreign countries?

In September 2016, the CATO Institute, a libertarian thinktank, issued a report entitled “Terrorism and Immigration.”  The author, Alex Nowrasteh, catalogs all foreign-born terrorists between 1975 and the end of 2015.  He looks at how many people they killed, which countries they came from, and what kinds of visas they used to enter the United States.  In that time period, there have been 154 foreign-born terrorists who have murdered 3,024 people on US soil.  Keep in mind that 2,983, or 98.6% of them, were killed on 9/11.

114 of the 154 foreign-born terrorists did not actually manage to kill anyone.  They either failed in their attacks, or were caught by law enforcement before they could act.  40 terrorists are responsible for the murders of 3,024 people in that 30 year time frame.

During the same time period, 1.13 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  More than 28 million foreigners entered the country for each victim who was killed in an attack.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on US soil by a foreigner is one in 3.6 million per year.

Fear of refugees is unsupported by the facts.  Nobody has been murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States by a refugee since the 1970’s.

Of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11, eighteen had entered on tourist visas.  None of them came from the seven countries banned by the President’s order.  In fact, there has never been a single person killed in a terrorist act on US soil by someone from one of those seven countries.  Here are the countries of origin of radicalized Muslims who have carried out attacks in the United States since 9/11: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States.

The attack at the Pulse nightclub this past December in which 49 people were killed was committed by Omar Mateen, who was born in New York.  The San Bernardino killings were committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik.  He was born in Chicago.  She was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.

In light of our recent history, it would seem that the threat of terrorism is not an especially significant problem with regard to our current immigration and refugee policies.  This is not to say that we should not take great care regarding who is permitted to entire our nation.  We should, but we must not allow ourselves to be driven by fear.

The deeper question we must consider is what our personal experience, our national experience and the experience of the Jewish people over the last three millennia teach us about dealing with those who leave their homelands to seek greater opportunities.  What are the values that we hope to embody?  And in an increasingly complicated and quickly-changing world, how do we translate those values into actions?

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

Coming Face to Face with Poverty – Vayechi 5774

In the last few weeks, I have been approached on two separate occasions by people, both Christians, about our community getting involved in charitable causes.

The first was for limited involvement in Santa Clara county’s Faith-Based Reentry Collaborative.  For a criminal who has served his or her time, getting back into society can be extremely difficult.  There is a high rate of recidivism, of people not being able to get their lives back together and winding up back in prison.  People often don’t have the social resources to become self-sufficient.  Perhaps they have burned their bridges with family members who could take them in.  Or maybe their criminal record makes it difficult to find work.  They fall back in to unhealthy social circles.

As a society, we do a terrible job of helping people reintegrate into society in a healthy and productive way.  The county has recently begun to establish partnerships with local houses of worship that will welcome former prisoners into their communities and provide them with mentorship and support.  So far, three local churches have opened up reentry centers, and the county is still trying to figure out ways for other faith communities to help.

I was approached about getting the Sinai community involved in a limited way.  A newly released prisoner often has nobody to come and pick him or her up.  Furthermore, the prison does not issue clothing, so they wear what they came in with, which may not be sufficient.

Members of our community could help out in that critical first 24 hours by picking up a released prisoner at midnight, bringing a set of warm clothes, dropping him or her off at a motel which we paid for, and providing them with a meal.  There would not be any further obligations.  Just that one night.

The second program about which I was approached is called Refugee Foster Care.  It is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.  It would involve a far more substantial commitment.  A family or individual would become foster parents for a child who has no parents, either because they were killed, or because they gave them up.  The kids are between 12 and 17 years of age and come from war-torn places around the world.

These two solicitations for our community’s involvement got me thinking.  Would Sinai members be interested in taking on causes like these – causes which bring us face to face former criminals, with children who have experience suffering most of us cannot even imagine?

Why is it that many Christian communities seem to be so motivated to get involved with human suffering in this way?  Why are we not involved in projects like these?  Projects of bringing people into our cars, or our homes.  Causes that demand us to give of ourselves?  Aren’t these essential Jewish values?

Our ancestors make the transition from a family into a people in this morning’s Parshah, Vayechi.  Jacob dies, and his sons carry out their promise to return his body to the land of Canaan to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  After the mourning period ends, the brothers are terrified that Joseph has only been behaving civilly to them out of respect for their father.  Now that he is gone, they worry that Joseph is going to take revenge for what they had done to him so many years before.  They send word to Joseph that their father had wished for him to forgive his brothers.

Joseph’s reaction surprises them.  He cries.  So they appear before him themselves, offering to become his slaves.  Joseph reassurs them that it was all part of God’s plan.  He has no intention whatsosever of taking revenge.  Not only that, he offers to help.  “And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children…” he says.

Joseph has introduced the idea that will be elaborated extensively throughout the Torah – that a Jew who is in the position to do so has an obligation to provide for other Jews who need help.

It is significant, perhaps, that the transformation into a people and Joseph’s commitment to care for them occurs outside of the Promised Land, in the Diaspora.  For millenia, Jewish communities in far-flung locations around the world found themselves in situations of having to take care of their own.

Until the last century, most Jewish communities were poor.  They also tended to be tightly knit.  Most people knew each other.  The community had to take on the responsibility of caring for its own poor – because there was nobody else to do so.

This was done in a variety of formal and informal ways.  There was a communal tzedakah fund called the kupah, with elected collectors and distributors.  It served as a kind of tax to cover communal expenses and provide a safety net for the poorest members of the community.

In addition, there was the tamchui, which was kind of an ad hoc soup kitchen.  The official collector might show up at your doorstep to collect a meal on behalf of another individual or family in the community who needed it.

At celebrations, the needy would be welcomed to attend.  They did not need an invitation.  People would go out of their way to invite poor people to their Shabbat and holiday tables.

Consider the passage that we recite at the beginning of the Passover seder.  We open the door and announce “Let all who are hungry come and eat…”  I don’t think it used to be a metaphorical statement, as it is for most of us today.  I think there were times, until very recently, when those who could afford it would invite those who could not to their dinner tables, including those who might have been homeless.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), the collection of ethical teachings that was compiled nearly 2,000 years ago, Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem teaches “Let your home be wide open, and make the poor into members of your household.”

Just think about all of the folktales from our tradition, covering all periods of history except the modern era, in which poor Jews are welcomed into the homes of other Jews.  I assume that those stories exist because things like that used to actually happen on a regular basis.

Synagogues used to function kind of like homeless shelters, especially on Shabbat.  Travelers, poor students, and people who did not have anywhere to stay would sleep on the benches of the shul.  The community would often provide them with a meal.

As Jews, we used to come face to face with poverty regularly.  Thankfully, Jewish communities today are wealthier than ever before.  It’s not to say that there are not plenty of Jews who struggle financially.  There are.  It is undeniable, however, that the global Jewish community has thrived in contemporary times.

Our empasis on tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (act of lovingkindness) remains important, but the way that we express those values has shifted along with economic and social realities.  Jews continue to give a lot to charity, but instead of a mandatory tax on the members of our community, everything is voluntary.

With the almost total acceptance of Jews into American society, the proportion of funds donated to Jewish non-profit organizations has fallen dramatically, especially among younger generations.  Our giving is directed to causes that we care about.  But rarely is money or assistance given face to face to needy members of our own community.

Like in most synagogues, a minuscule portion of Sinai’s annual budget goes towards charitable activities and social action.

Sinai has had some great Tikkun Olam activities over the past couple of years.  But for the most part, our efforts have not put us into direct contact with poverty.  We have served several meals at local soup kitchens, but even then the contact with the homeless is limited.

We have not invited the homeless into our synagogue.  We have not sponsored programs that would assign members of our community to be mentors to people who could really benefit from that kind of guidance, whether former prisoners, kids who cannot read, or refugees.

How would we respond if someone who was obviously homeless walked into the synagogue during Shabbat services?  Would we welcome that person with open arms?  Would we be worried about safety?  Would we ask him to leave?

In the Bar Area, there are churches, and even some synagogues, that house rotating homeless shelters.  Why not us?

There are other religious traditions that seem to place a much greater theological emphasis on direct service to the poor.  For example, there is a story in the New Testament of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples’ feet.  The new Pope, Francis, recently made news when he washed the feet of 12 juvenile prisoners.  Back when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would frequently wash the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.  It is about humbling oneself in service to other human beings.  For Christian communities who are trying to literally follow Jesus’ example, having that direct contact with the poor makes sense, theologically.

For most of Jewish history, our communities could not afford to direct so much of our charitable activities beyond our own communities.  Facing so much discrimination, Jews had to take care of their own – and they did a phenomenal job of it.  But now that the direct need is either not as great, or just more hidden, what should we be doing?

My goal this morning is to raise questions.  Should we be devoting considerable resources to directly serve those who need it most?  Should we open up our synagogue, or even our homes, to people who would otherwise never enter our lives?  Should we give substantively of ourselves to non-Jews?

The answer is not easy.  Jewish communities around America are struggling to retain and attract sufficient members and funds to remain viable.  Can we afford to send our limited resources outside our community?

When asked, American Jews seem to recognize the importanec of serving humanity.  A 2001 study asked American Jews about involvement in this kind of work.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

  • “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”
  • “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”
  • “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

The difficulty is, it is possible to feel just as strongly about working on behalf of the underserved without attributing those motivations to Judaism.  I do not need to be Jewish to help the poor.  What is it from our own tradition that would compel us to give so much of ourselves to non-Jews?

It is an open question.  The invitations stand  As a Jewish community, do we want to help human beings who have made some wrong decisions in life get back on track after they have been released from jail?  Do we want to encourage and support Jews in our community who are willing to foster a teen-ager whose life has been torn apart by war?

I would like to hear from you – either today during kiddush, or some other time.  What should we be doing as a kehillah kedoshah, as a holy Jewish community?

When Joseph makes the commitment to his brothers, “fear not, I will sustain you and your children,” he is committing to serve his own siblings.

In the 21st century, who are our brothers and sisters?