Justice & Freedom for All: All Are Welcome

When we entered the USA as refugees, we were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, on whose base the poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

I grew up in a house where my parents instilled within me and my siblings the values of tikkun olam – social justice and repairing our world. At early ages, they taught us the Jewish notion that, “If your eye has seen something, and your ear has heard something, you can no longer be uninvolved or unaffected. You are now a witness and you are obligated to act.”

My parents modeled this behavior by taking us to marches and rallies for Israel and Soviet Jewry in New York City. We marched against the war in Viet Nam. We were taught that marching and attending rallies were good, but not enough. We learned how to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. They taught us to discover what actions to pursue that would make a difference in the lives of others.

As a rabbi in the public realm, I walk a fine balance: I minister to those whose thoughts and feelings fall on all sides of the political and social spectrums. At times, I must keep my personal feelings and ideas to myself, in order to respond pastorally to our entire congregation or community. Yet, at times, I feel that moral imperative to speak out, to share the prophetic voices from our Jewish teachings, to heed the call of our Jewish tradition.

Now is not the time to remain silent. For if I remain silent, I am complicit with the injustices taking place in our society.

Now is the time to speak out. Now is the time to act. Now is the time for our community to come together and unite – no matter one’s political or social leanings. We must remember that in our Pledge of Allegiance, we take an oath that our country promises to be a place of “justice and freedom for all.”

I am alarmed at the events taking place in my country — my beloved United States of America, the “home of the free and the brave” — in recent days.

I am especially ashamed and horrified by the Executive Order enacted this past Friday, January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA for at least the next 90 days. The order is far-reaching: among its actions, it stops the admission of all refugees into the United States for at least four months – even those that have already gone through a rigorous two-year vetting process; Trump prioritizes Christian refugees over Muslim refugees in the EO; it bans Syrian refugees altogether as “detrimental to the interests of the United States” and so much more.

We all witnessed on the news that through this Executive Order, permanent residents of the United States with valid Green Cards, who have been living here, working here, raising their families here; students and faculty studying and teaching at our universities; people adding to our economy in the workforce and so many others were caught either in our airports on Friday, or turned back when trying to board planes to return to the United States. People who have added so much to our economy, to our culture to the great melting pot of our great nation have been told they are “detrimental to the interests” of our country and cannot enter the USA.

Refugees who no longer have homes in their countries of origin, who are fleeing from the atrocities and harshness of war, hatred, strife, xenophobia, discrimination, poverty and so much more have been told that they are not welcome here.

With the exception of Native Americans, most of us came to the United States as refugees. For centuries, people have come to the United States seeking a life of freedom, opportunity, and peace. Many of our ancestors either came here either seeking a better economic life for themselves or because they too were fleeing from harsh regimes where they could not live their lives in freedom and peace. Many North American Jews came to the United States because they fled from Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, or even years earlier from the Tzarist regime in Russia.

In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (great philosopher, scholar, moral thinker and the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) spoke out in a video message: “The Holocaust did not define what it is to be a Jew. The Holocaust defined what it is to be human.”

To be human is to recognize that we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God,” as we are taught in Genesis 1:27. It is to recognize that in the face of hatred, injustice, and intolerance, no matter what our politics, we cannot remain silent. It is to live out the biblical injunction “justice justice you shall pursue – tzedek tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The biblical imperative to “love your neighbor” knows no religious or national boundaries. Our common interest in security is only undermined when we allow fear to dismantle the very principles of our democracy.

As Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” He said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” To paraphrase, we must always speak out when we see a wrong. We must find a way to change the wrongs we see taking place in our society, to use our political process to our advantage to make the changes we need. We saw that notion in action with the protests at the airports this past Friday, and with the wonderful actions of the US Federal judges who issued orders preventing parts of the Executive Order from being enacted.

We need to reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters here in the United States, as well as to those of every ethnic background, every religion, every race – and say: “You are welcome here!” There is no one kind of “American people” – we are a beautiful potpourri, made up of peoples of every gender, every country, every religion every ethnic background, every sexual orientation.

Let us continue to raise our voices, speak out, join our hands together, work for a better tomorrow, a brighter future for all.

People of faith have a particular responsibility to speak out. The Koran teaches: “We have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” In our Jewish tradition, in our Reform Movement’s Friday Sabbath liturgy we read:

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land,
that the winding way to that promise
passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
Mishkan T’filah (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), page 157

“Unlocking our Powers”

My niece Zoe just turned eight.

For her birthday, all she wanted was to come and visit “Aunt Sharon in Chicago.”

So, my brother, Ari, and sister-in-law, Christina, decided to surprise her and her four-year-old brother, Max and make her birthday wish come true.

The day of her birthday she woke up in Pittsburgh (where they live). She had a fabulous birthday breakfast with her family and one of my other nieces Sarah and Sarah’s mother, Marilyn, who were visiting from Tampa.

Christina secretly packed their suitcases and just as they were getting ready to go to the airport, they told Zoe and Max that they were heading to Chicago. They couldn’t have been more excited!

When I met them at the airport, after we hugged and kissed, Zoe informed me about what she was most looking forward to seeing on this trip: “I can’t wait to see your synagogue, Aunt Sharon!” “Me too!” Max replied.

Zoe and Max were so thrilled to be with me, we could have done anything. We had a lovely birthday dinner. We went to the Children’s Museum on Navy Pier. We went to the beach on Lake Michigan. We spent time at my synagogue, where they displayed “audacious hospitality” by welcoming everyone who came in the door: “Welcome! I’m Zoe, Rabbi Sharon’s niece.” “Welcome! I’m Max, Rabbi Sharon’s nephew.” (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could be welcomed like that when they walked in the doors of our synagogues?)

Celebrating Zoe's 8th Birthday at Aunt Sharon's house in Highland Park, IL
Celebrating Zoe’s 8th Birthday at Aunt Sharon’s house in Highland Park, IL

They made me laugh and smile. And I was able to see first-hand how they are mature beyond their years.

When they returned home, Christina shared a conversation Max and Zoe had with each other:

Max: Hey, Zoe, everybody has powers, right? (Max does love his Superheroes).

Zoe: Yeah, they’ve just got to unlock them.

Little do Max and Zoe realize that they were discussing a very Jewish concept, this idea of “everybody has powers”. Everyone has special and unique gifts. Each of us must find a way to “unlock our powers” – or “unlock our potential”. Each of us must find a way to discover what makes us special and how we can share our gifts with others to make our world a better place.

Max and Zoe DO understand that each and everyone of us is unique. Throughout our time together, they found a way to tell people “you are beautiful,” “you are special.” Max would compliment waitresses in restaurants and make them feel good (who wouldn’t smile when a handsome, adorable four-year-old tells them they are beautiful?!)

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that each one of us is made in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. And, no two people are created the same.

As the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chasidic movement) said:

Every one should know that since creation each human being has been unique. We all are called on to perfect our unique qualities. And it is our failure to heed this call that delays the Messiah.

When I spend time with Zoe and Max, I know that their unique gifts will leave a positive imprint on our world. Each of us has the ability to do the same.