Embracing the Stranger in the Wider World | Reconstructing Judaism

Embracing the Stranger in the Wider World

Embracing the stranger is not just an individual journey—it’s a communal calling. We are commanded as Jews to “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) In the face of fear, hostility, or simple disregard toward those who are different, our challenge is to lift up our common humanity, and our inherent dignity and worth as beings b’tzelem Elohim, reflecting the divine image.

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psalm 79: pour out your love

can you pour out your love
upon the ones you do not know,
the ones who mutter their strange
and fearful prayers, who
refuse to call upon god
by your comfortable, familiar names?

can you tear open your robe and
let your compassion bleed out,
swaddling and comforting
those you have been taught to fear
with an indignation that burns
like a devouring fire?

are you ready to mourn
the dead of another family
whose blood is your blood,
the one who looks like a stranger
but is, in truth,
your own flesh and kin?

so throw open the doors,
and if the holy temple is to be defiled
let it be defiled
with unconditional love and grace,
profaned with the unbearably gorgeous
symphony of kaddishes
known and unknown.

Desperate Immigrants: An Ancient Jewish Story

In the Book of Genesis, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Promised Land. Shortly after they arrive, they encounter famine and head to Egypt in search of food. Foreigners without family or clan to protect them, they are afraid. Abraham asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister in the hope that this will help them avoid trouble – an act of deceit that potentially offered them some protection from harm in the context of their times.

The gamble works out badly. Pharaoh’s courtiers notice Sarah’s beauty, and the king summons her to his harem. Only divine intervention lets Sarah escape without having to sleep with the king.

It’s a pitiable story. Abraham and Sarah lie and humiliate themselves to try to survive in a foreign nation they have not received permission to enter. It’s a story of strangers in a strange land, without protection, without connections and without a right to go about their business unmolested. It is an illegal immigrant’s story.

It’s also a story that Jews have known well many times over in many lands. Jews desperately did whatever necessary to seek a safe haven in different countries after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. During the great Jewish immigration waves to the U.S., in order to escape poverty and anti-Semitism, some Jews faked their documents or “married” American citizens to gain entry to the country. During the Nazi era, most European Jews couldn’t legally immigrate to other countries. Some weighed their options and chose to try to escape Hitler by making their way to British-run Palestine – but even in attempting to immigrate to their ancient homeland, they had to enter Palestine as illegal immigrants. They used many forms of disguise and deceit to get there.

Abraham and Sarah’s deception is pathetic. As uninvited immigrants, these unwanted Hebrews have no social or governmental structure to protect them – no way to seek recourse against anyone harming them or taking advantage of them financially or, as the sister/bride deception points to, sexually. Years pass, they return to Canaan, and still their marginal status as immigrants continues. They face suspicion from the native citizens and do their best to try to gain a foothold in their adopted country. When Sarah dies, despite the many years Abraham has lived and worked in Canaan, he still has not so much as even a claim to a grave site where he can bury her. He ends up having to go to the country’s citizens, hat in hand, and ask if he can purchase a small cave for her grave. He ends up overpaying for it.

Abraham and Sarah came to Canaan without permission, but they brought blessings to the people of the region. Mexican and Central American farmworkers, here legally or not, bring Americans the largely unappreciated luxury of cheap and abundant produce, and poverty drives most of them across our borders.

As a rabbi, I look to Jewish history and to the Hebrew Bible for insight into the ethical questions about immigrants, labor, and justice. In the Jewish community, we know from our experience that when people are desperate and seeking a better life, and when they are in precarious circumstances, sometimes they lie or break the law in order to get by. It’s humiliating. It’s not what people would prefer to do. We can judge them for it, or we can try to empathize and factor in their circumstances and difficult choices as we try to find better national policy.

Immigration laws are important, and our country is based on the rule of law. Jewish tradition also sees law as sacred and essential to a just society. But alongside law, Judaism also places sacred emphasis on story. The law must listen to the specifics of the stories being brought before it. From a Jewish perspective, good law is not robotic. It responds to people and it recognizes human vulnerability. It resists humiliating people who are swept along by massive forces that put them in the position of needing to take unappealing and dangerous risks to try to help themselves and their families survive. As Jews, we’ve played the part of Abraham and Sarah many times. We know this story.

Leviticus 19:33–34 reads, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall do him or her no wrong. The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him or her as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal, your God.”

America can do better than demonizing the Abrahams and Sarahs in our midst. Let us remember the heart of the stranger, for we have been strangers in many lands, in many times.

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on Oregonlive.com.

 

Shofar Kavannah for Refugees

This ritual invokes the blast of the shofar to articulate the plight of refugees. It was created for use at High Holidays in response to the presidential travel ban.

The blasts of the shofar are a wordless prayer punctuated by moments of silence. The stories of courage, hope, and determination of refugees resettling in our communities are punctuated by the silent yearnings of those who are kept out by the presidential travel ban.

Tekiah is the wail of a single mom of three fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo who is learning to navigate life in a small midwestern town.

[blow Tekiah]

Silence is the heartbreak of a Syrian-born resident of the U.S. who cannot visit her mom in Egypt.

[pause for silence]

Shevarim is the determined steps of the young Iraqi father who begins working two jobs far beneath his skill level so he can buy a car for his family.

[blow Shevarim]

Silence is journey that is halted because of the new order that only refugees with bona fide relationships will be allowed entry. 

[pause for silence]

T’ruah is the broken sounds of English of two young Syrian girls, born in Jordanian refugee camps and now in public school in the United States.

[blow T’ruah]

Silence is the empty arrivals screen on the resettlement caseworker’s computer.

[pause for silence]

Tekiah gedolah is the blast that holds on when there seems to be no energy left. It calls us to not allow xenophobia, Islamophobia, and nativism to be the new normal.

[blow Tekiah Gedolah]

I Want You to Know I Am Human: Listening to the Stranger Behind Bars

I am a public defender. I have a client who thanks me, constantly. He thanks me for taking his calls, for answering his letters, for passing on bad news. On some days, his enthusiasm and gratitude buoy me. I hope he believes that I am fighting for him as well as any lawyer could. I hope he knows I hear him. On other days, I rail against my clients’ low expectations. Some of our clients do not expect competent lawyers, do not expect to be heard. They do not expect their lives to matter. More than anything, I cannot accept this. And so I am obligated to show that I do, deeply, believe Black Lives Matter.

The Torah teaches us, over and over, that we shall not wrong a stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. We are taught from the outset that God brought us forth from Egypt, from bondage. This identification of our own story of redemption with the oppression of strangers among us speaks directly to my work. I try to release people from bondage. It doesn’t even require a metaphor.

Even though freedom from bondage frames our story, the Torah reveals little about prisoners until we reach Lamentations. We read there that imprisonment is lonely and endless, miserable, dark, numbing, humiliating, and like being dead. I spend a lot of time talking to prisoners. The words of Lamentations are as apt today as they were when they were written. Most chilling of all, the prisoner laments: “And when I cry out and plead, God shuts out my prayer” (Lam. 3:8). 

The United States imprisons far more people per capita than any other country in the world. Right now we hold over 2.25 million people in our prisons and jails. We disproportionately incarcerate people of color. One in three African-American men, and one in six Latino men, will be incarcerated at some point in his lifetime. White women like me face a far different likelihood of incarceration: one in one hundred and eleven. 

One of the privileges of my work is the opportunity to connect with my clients, who are in many ways strangers, those with vastly different experiences of living in our country. I defend their liberty and insist upon their dignity, in a criminal justice system that is relentlessly dehumanizing.

When I began practicing law, I imagined my career would contribute toward dismantling systemic injustices facing racial minorities and the poor. Ten years later, I am not convinced we are dismantling anything.  Instead, I see my work in microcosm: in representing my clients and working with their families, I strive to reach across the boundaries of difference and locate our shared humanity. That radical act of extending compassion to a stranger may be the closest my work gets to social change.

The myth of legal training, even for lawyers who wish to serve the poor, is that we practice law to “help” people. For me, the practice of poverty law is a two-way street. My clients open my eyes; they transform me. I learn about resilience and love as much as I learn about trauma and violence.

As I talk with my clients’ mothers, wives, and partners, and as I hear about their children, I understand how our justice system fractures families, creating widows and orphans: 2.7 million children in our country have an incarcerated parent. That is one in 28 children. But again, people of color are disproportionately affected. One in nine African-American children is an orphan of our criminal justice system. One in nine. 

Have you ever watched young children waiting in a prison lobby to visit a parent? On one hand, it is heartening. At least this family is fighting the geography of incarceration: they have somehow reached this prison, no matter how remote, and they are maintaining connection. It is also a source of despair. I see children for whom this routine is obviously unremarkable. Children who have learned to silently, motionlessly wait. Children who see their caretakers, almost always women, endure the humiliation of the guards’ scrutiny. Prison regulations about women’s clothing are talmudic in their inscrutability and can be applied to prohibit almost anything. My own clothing has occasionally been questioned, although as a lawyer I am generally accorded an exception. But there are no exceptions for the underwire bra rule. Bras that set off the metal detector usually must be dismembered, because one cannot enter without a bra (that’s another rule). The guards send visitors out, not always kindly, to remove metal from their bras. Children watch all of this. Children see the state exert control over the body of their incarcerated parent, and over the bodies of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, too.

Just over three years ago, I was in a Texas prison, in the death row visiting room, to see a client. It was an execution day; another prisoner, not my client, was going to be killed that evening. That prisoner was having a family visit, a farewell visit, on the other side of the same visiting room.

I was very pregnant. After speaking with my client for a couple of hours, I excused myself to use the bathroom. I waited outside the visiting room bathroom. Waited. And waited some more. The delay exasperated me, immersed as I was in the urgency and self-righteousness of late pregnancy.

When the door finally opened a girl emerged. A teenager, bent over double. I realized she was the condemned prisoner’s child, and she had been throwing up. A second too late, I reached out for her shoulder, to comfort her; but she was gone.

What could I do but go back to my client and continue our visit, professional, competent. When we finished, I left; it is always surprising to exit a prison so easily. Guards, unnervingly calm, opened doors for me. I got into my steaming car and called my wife, Abby. I call her from a lot of prison parking lots. But this time, as soon as I heard her voice my veneer of competency dissolved into sobs. She was alarmed: is it the pregnancy? No, it is fine, kicking. It’s just that the child was heaving, and that child will never forget this. It’s just that maybe it was not a good idea to come on an execution day. It’s just that we are so cruel.

When I say that representing my clients opens my eyes, this is what I mean. I leave every prison visit more aware of my experience as a free person choosing to be there; a white, educated, professional; a person who does not have to cultivate the patience of the incarcerated; a wife and mother unlikely to be widowed or see her children orphaned by the criminal courts, and extremely unlikely to see her children endure a final farewell in a prison visiting room. Understanding this allows me to understand more about those who are not me.

In Lamentations, as we read of the prisoner whose face was ground into the gravel, and the streets defiled with blood, we learn that Jerusalem was complicit in her downfall: our sins brought the destruction upon us. The notion that God would destroy a nation for lack of righteousness seems so biblical and remote. But far too often we watch, on video, blood spill in our streets. Last year we saw a human being’s head, Alton Sterling’s head, ground into the gravel as shots rang out, and we watched him bleed. You don’t have to smell a child’s fear on the day of her father’s execution to know that we are now, as in ancient times, living in deep transgression of our values. Last spring, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, dissenting in a case about police stops, “No one can breathe in this atmosphere.”1 She was right. And our hearts are sick.

The trauma around us may be overwhelming. But every day when we wake up, we are given the opportunity to see ourselves, and our contributions, anew. We all must learn to live anew. Often we believe that what we bring to our work is the ability to help our clients or students or patients, to help our colleagues, to use our special skills to do something. We forget, or we do not have our eyes and ears open to see and hear, that our work can transform us. And when we hope to heal our fractured world that might be the place we have to start.  

What can we bring about by hearing? There is a well-known rabbinic dialogue questioning which is greater, action or study. The rabbis concluded that study is greater, because it leads to action.2 This is probably not a surprising answer. And yet, it’s not the only answer. When Moses read us the Torah, we responded: “we shall do and we shall hear” [na’aseh v’nishma] (Exod. 24:7). The rabbis also teach that our entry into the covenant with those words reflects a promise first to act, observing the laws of Torah, and only afterward to study and understand the law.3 This is seen as an extraordinary declaration of faith. It is also practical; imagine if we could not act, perform a mitzvah, until we understood the entire Torah? But even so this “act first” teaching seems inconsistent with the initial lesson that study leads to action. I can only conclude that we are not to see “doing and hearing,” or “action and study,” as binary; they are intertwined. At its core we can understand our obligation to do, and to hear, as a promise to sanctify ourselves by emulating God—by letting our actions be affected when we hear the cries of strangers, of those who suffer.

May 15, 2016, marked the 100th anniversary of a notorious lynching in Waco, Texas, the lynching of Jesse Washington. If you ever studied twentieth-century American history, you probably saw a photograph of it; you would not forget. Ten thousand spectators gathered to watch 17-year-old Jesse Washington being brutally killed, burned, and dismembered by the lynch mob. To mark the anniversary, an African-American journalist named Jesse Washington, knowing he shared a name with the victim of this tragedy, traveled to Waco. He wrote a searing essay about this visit.4 Among white residents, including judges now presiding at the courthouse where the lynching began, he encountered few people who knew the history of the lynching, or who cared to talk about it. Among African-American residents, he found that people immediately recognized the significance of his name, and knew about the lynching in great detail.

Some of us can choose whether to hear and listen to the story of Jesse Washington’s lynching; others cannot. Some of the black residents interviewed for the article were old enough to have been told the story of the lynching in hushed tones: a cautionary tale about the threat of violence in their town, violence by their neighbors. But some of us have to put ourselves in positions where we will hear such stories. Only when we can hear and understand the significance of Jesse Washington’s lynching can we hope to grapple with the weight of our history.

To that end, I invited into this essay some voices other than my own. After all, who am I to tell you what it is like to be in prison? I asked a few of my clients what they would want to share about being incarcerated. In the letters I received, my clients told me things they had not told me before. One wrote that he was “elated” I had asked for his story. Clearly, I am not asking enough to hear these stories.

The elated client wrote a lot about his family. In particular he wanted to praise his mother:

I grew up in North Philadelphia. My mother raised three children, two daughters and one son, not to mention the fact that she also cared for her siblings as well. My mother did good with us and I make certain that I tell her that all of the time. […] I want to make her proud of me despite all the obstacles that I have come up against due to choices I have made.

This struck me, because I could always use a reminder to praise my own mother, who is wonderful. And it struck me because, of all the ways I have attempted to understand imprisonment, I had never thought about how a prisoner might want to make his mother proud.  

Another client wrote about something I have observed, too, but I would not have been able to describe from his perspective. He wrote:

I will say this, it’s interesting how much men read in jail. It might not all be high literature but it’s reading. Most of these men didn’t read in school or even like school. That shows me that in the right conditions the will to learn is there.

Just days after my client wrote that letter, President Obama described how we have failed communities where “it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”5 Together, President Obama and my client teach us that there is an entire community of African-American and Latino men for whom the first environment we provide that is conducive to reading is a prison. 

Another client’s letter reflected on how he maintains his humanity after childhood trauma and three decades of solitary confinement:

My childhood tragedy has not affected my ability to love others generously and that possibly is the real miracle. That ability can only be a blessing from God… . Loving others is my way of crying. Most of all, I want you to know I am human.

Maybe the stranger you encounter is not a prisoner. Many others also want us to know that they are human. Maybe your stranger is mentally ill, disabled, an immigrant, a person within the Jewish community who is not Jewish, or a person who is differently Jewish. We do not lack for strangers, or for life stories that remain unheard due to differences between us. You will hear things that I do not hear; those stories too will enrich our humanity.

It is somewhat intangible, maybe, to pursue hearing and listening. At home, at work, in community, we want to do. I believe in doing. I represent people with pressing needs. But it is precisely this call to hear, the imperative we recite twice each day, that we hope can awaken us to engagement. It was when God heard cries—the cries of Ishmael, the cries of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt—that hearing brought about redemption. Our challenge is to put ourselves in positions where we will be able to hear. Sometimes, like me, we will need to ask to hear these stories.

When I propose that we must listen and make ourselves able to hear the cries of those suffering among us, that is not the end of our responsibility. We cannot begin to heal these wounds by listening alone. Our individual intentions, no matter how righteous, cannot correct structural inequalities. Instead, may we hear the obligation to realize those rights.6 May we be engaged to pursue political and social change. May we build a society where no one has to cry out, “I want you to know I am human.”

This essay is adapted from a talk, “Listening to the Lament, Finding our Dissent,” given at Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre in August 2016, on erev Tisha B’Av. 

Yom Kippur at Lincoln Memorial

(from God Loves the Stranger: Stories, Poems, Prayers )

Today is a day of repentance, renewal, and solidarity.

Repentance in Hebrew is T’shuvah, which means turning and returning—making an about-face.

It is a most treasured human gift.

One who turns around and heads in the right direction Is respected and appreciated.

Indeed, when we say that we are lost, it is often the beginning of the journey home.

The Source of Life, the Divine Beloved, calls us to return, calls us to T’shuvah, again and again.

 

V’Shavta Ad Adonai Elohecha: “And you shall return to Godliness, to Goodness” it says in the Book of Deuteronomy.

 

“Return,” the tradition says, “the moment before you die.”

“But when will I die?” we ask.

“No one knows. So return today!”

 

Return from where?

 

Return from arrogance, fear and delusion,

Return from a false view that to say we are wrong means we are weak and foolish instead of strong and wise and loving,

From a false hope that our children and their children will not harvest the consequences of our greed.

 

Turn toward what?

 

Turn us toward remembering

 

Turn us toward remembering what we learn in the Book of Leviticus—when God tells us, Ki Lee Haaretz, ki Gerim V’Toshavim Atem Emadi—The land is mine—you are sojourners and resident settlers with me. Our ownership and our residency are conditional and impermanent.

Turn us toward remembering that all beings on this planet, all beings, breathe the same air, are burned by the same sun, eat from the same soil and drink from the same cup.

Turn us toward remembering that all beings on this planet, all beings, are loved by the same endless, everlasting and infinite Love.

Turn us toward remembering that there is only one body to wound, and it is ours.

Hasheveinu Adonai Elecha V’Nashuva

Chadesh Yamaynu Kekedem

Turn us to you, Adonai, and we will return.

Renew every single one of our days.

May the ancient wisdom guide us into a new world of caring and hope.

Hagar: The Immigrant Worker

Many, many years ago in a distant land a woman named Sarah was married to Abraham. Sarah was not able to bear children. She was distressed and often wondered how she could increase her standing in the community and keep the wealth she and her husband had acquired in their family, both of which depended on having children. One day she realized the answer was right there before her eyes in the form of her domestic help, the young immigrant woman from Egypt named Hagar. Sarah knew that Hagar needed the job at her house and would do whatever it took to keep it. Hagar needed to send money back to her family who was struggling to make ends meet back in Egypt. Asking her to go beyond the call of duty was fine, Sarah thought, because Hagar should feel lucky to have a job. And a good one at that, one that included in living in Abraham and Sarah’s nice house and eating their food. She was surely luckier than most of her kin back in Egypt who labored day and night just to keep food on their plate. Hagar should be thankful to Sarah.

So Sarah decided she would improve her status, be “built up by Hagar,” by allowing Abraham to conceive a child for their family with Hagar (Genesis 16:2). She made a deal with Hagar that she and the child she bore would be part of Abraham and Sarah’s family. They would care for her and her child until he was an adult. Sarah assured Hagar that this arrangement would not jeopardize her job or affect the amount of money she made and was able to send home to her family. Of course, this agreement was not put into writing. Hagar was nervous about what sounded like a complicated situation but was also excited about the possibility of having a child. And she knew she had no choice but to say yes.

Hagar soon conceived a child. Abraham was relieved and kinder to both Sarah and Hagar now that he knew his family line would be perpetuated. But almost immediately Sarah began treating Hagar harshly. She demanded Hagar work more hours each week without any pay increase. She scolded Hagar if she used the toilet at any time other then during an appointed break, and she refused to let her see a doctor when she burned her hand while making the fire one day. Finally one day Hagar was fed up with this abuse and left the house. She was going to quit and never come back until she realized that she did not have any other options. She was pregnant in a foreign country, needed the money and food her job provided as well as the access to doctors that she had when living in Abraham and Sarah’s house. Unable to survive without the job, she returned to the house. She decided she would just have to put up with the abuse.

Hagar gave birth to a beautiful and healthy boy, who Abraham named Ishmael. Years went by and Hagar worked hard, living under Sarah’s harsh treatment. She would complain about things with the other Egyptian women who worked in the Canaanite women’s households when they were at the well together, but none of them ever could figure how to improve their working conditions without losing their jobs.
 

Ishmael was getting older and Hagar was pleased about the opportunities he gained by living in Canaan and saw that he would have more possibilities in his life than Hagar had in hers. Then one day Sarah miraculously got pregnant, despite the fact that she was an old woman. She had told Hagar that God told her she would get pregnant but she had not believed such a crazy prophecy. Sarah was ecstatic. Hagar was hopeful that if Sarah had her own baby she would be a bit kinder toward her as she would no longer be jealous.

But that is not what happened. Sarah gave birth to Isaac and began to treat Hagar even more harshly. Now that Sarah had her own son she did not want her family to include these foreigners. Sarah made Hagar work even harder and provided her with less and less time off. She restricted the access she had to health care. It was terribly difficult, but at least, Hagar thought, Ishmael and Isaac were getting along. However, one day Ishmael and Isaac were playing together, laughing, and Sarah watched them intently through the window. Her jealousy boiled up inside of her, and she screamed at Abraham that he had to get rid of Ishmael and Hagar. She told Abraham that she was not going to have her son share her inheritance with an Egyptian boy.

Hagar knew Sarah had a temper, but she also knew that Abraham was very reasonable. She trusted Abraham would calm Sarah down and continue to take care of her and her son. But the next morning she awoke to Abraham knocking on her door. He said that she and Ishmael had to leave. He was sorry, but God had told him he had to do what Sarah wanted. Abraham put a pouch of water and a bag of bread on Hagar’s shoulder. Ishmael had woken up with a fever that night and could not walk so well on his own, so Abraham put him on Hagar’s other shoulder (Genesis Rabbah 53:13). The next day was the last day of the month, when Hagar would get paid. But Abraham did not give Hagar any silver or gold – only water and bread (Rashi on Genesis 21:14). He assured Hagar that God would take care of them and that Ishmael would be the father of a great nation. He then walked Hagar to the back door, before anyone else in the house had awakened for the day, and sent her and Ishmael out into the desert.

Hagar was humiliated and angry. She walked down the path away from the house, and she wandered into the desert trying to figure out where to go. Ishmael was drinking a lot because he was sick (Genesis Rabbah 53:13). The water was quickly running out. So Hagar lay Ishmael down under a bush, walked down the path, and broke down weeping and wailing. She knew her son would die. He had a fever. She had no access to medical care. She desperately wondered how she could get enough food and water to save her son. She was in disbelief that Abraham, Ishmael’s father, had left them to die. But she had no one to approach with her grievances. There were no laws or agencies to protect household workers. She thought of talking to her friends, the other immigrant women who were maidservants. But what would they do? If they talked to Abraham or to their bosses they could be cast out as well. She had no money. She sent most of her pay each month to her family in Egypt, so she had no savings. And she had worked all month and was now receiving no compensation for that work. She did not know how she would survive.

Thousands of years later Hagar has become Maria with a son named Fernando. Abraham and Sarah have become Abe and Susan. But the rest of the circumstances are eerily similar. Abe and Susan are restaurant owners who force Maria to clock out at 5:00 but work until 7:00 every day to avoid paying her overtime. They figure that Maria should be happy she has a job. They assume she is better off than she would be back home in Mexico. Maria keeps quiet for fear of losing her job, or even worse, being reported to the immigration authorities. When union representatives come to town and try to help Maria and her fellow workers organize themselves to protect their wages and jobs, they find that it is impossible to organize them because of their vulnerable status and because of the union-busting firms that Abe and Susan hire to get rid of the union.

Abe and Susan are one of thousands of American business owners building up their business and keeping the money in their own pockets by employing vulnerable workers and not paying them the wages they are due. Maria is just one of two or three million workers whose wages are stolen by not being paid minimum wage or not being paid for overtime work.

Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, succinctly explains the problem of stolen wages and how we participate in it:

Although I know there are many fine ethical businessmen and women in the United States who employ workers and do their best to treat workers both legally and ethically, my experience from Interfaith Worker Justice … provides a disheartening view of the underbelly of the economy. Millions of workers are having billions of dollars of wages stolen each and every year. The protections that exist are inadequate or not enforced. As consumers and sometimes as employers, all of us participate either knowingly or unwittingly in supporting businesses that steal wages from workers. (Bobo, Wage Theft in America, xii)

 

The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimates that companies annually steal $19 billion in unpaid overtime. Some labor lawyers suggest the number is far higher (Bobo, Wage Theft in America, p. 8). We are all part of the national crisis known as wage theft, of workers not getting paid or getting underpaid for the work they perform.

On Yom Kippur we acknowledge the misdeeds we have committed in the past year, and we must examine our involvement in this economic injustice. This is difficult because many of us have suffered from the economic meltdown. Some of us lost our jobs. Some of us watched our retirement savings dwindle. And many of us begin this New Year facing stressful financial situations. It is not easy to think about other people’s financial problems when are experiencing hardship. However, it is never acceptable for people to not get paid for work they do. We cannot participate in this crime nor stand idly by while it happens around us or to us.

In our repetition of the Al Het prayer during the High Holiday services we ask God for forgiveness for the wrongs we have done knowingly or unknowingly and for wrongs we have done because of our avarice and greed. So we must ask ourselves how we have participated in wage theft? How we can stand by while Maria is treated like Hagar? And what can we do about it?

There are many things we can do to protect workers, to end the crisis of wage theft in America. We need to support legislation to re-empower workers to form unions that will give them the ability to protect themselves from wage theft and to obtain more job security and higher wages. We need to pressure politicians to strengthen the Department of Labor so that it defends the rights of workers instead of catering to the wishes of business owners. We need to advocate for legislation that will directly prevent wage theft and urge our legislators to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And we each need to take care to make more ethical purchasing decisions in our own personal and professional lives.

But we also need to ask: Why do we stand by when such rampant injustice goes on every day in every city in our country? Why do we stand by when the ratio of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) pay to worker pay is the most disproportionate of any industrialized nation in the world? In 2005 CEO pay in the U.S. was 262 times the average worker’s wages. By comparison, CEO pay in other industrialized countries is only 10 to 25 times that of the rank and file (iwj.org).

What keeps our hearts closed to the suffering of others? For one, we live in a country in which individualism is prized and status is often measured by material wealth. Surrounded by such cultural norms we become greedy and absorbed with our own desires. Just as Sarah wants to keep the inheritance all for her son and will throw Hagar and Ishmael out on the street to guarantee such an outcome, business owners today will exploit workers to make a higher profit. And we do the same. We want to find good deals on material goods and turn a blind eye to where our clothes, our toys, and our electronics are made. I am guilty of this myself and I work at a labor rights organization!

How hard it is to give up a good deal to protect a worker we will never meet. That is a central reason we close our hearts to the suffering of low-wage workers. We do not see them. In an industrialized, global economy many of the workers we support with our purchasing dollars are invisible to us: the people who manufacture our electronics, launder our suits, or manufacture our cars. But others are right behind the counters at our favorite lunch spot, cleaning the halls in the nursing home where we visit our elderly relatives, or repairing the roof at our office. But we move busily through our lives blind to the humanity of the workers who make our lives easier, cleaner, and more comfortable.

One of the first steps to solving the problem of wage theft and abuse of low-wage workers is opening our eyes to those workers. When we see others as human beings who love their children, dream about their future, and worry about their parents our hearts are opened and we can longer stand by idly. Our Torah teaches us this lesson. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein suggests that the name Hagar, which is written without vowels in the Torah, can be read in two different ways, by playing with the Hebrew vowels. We can read it “Ha-ger” which means “the stranger.” Or we can read it “Hey-gar” which means “G-d dwells within.” Rabbi Goldstein writes, “What a difference. Depending on how we read a situation, we can find God in the face of the stranger.” When we can find God in the stranger then we are more likely to act more compassionately, generously, and ethically.

At the same time we must open our eyes to the truth about ourselves. It is so easy for us to see our inner Hagar, the part of us that is treated unfairly, that knows desperation and pain. We can see the underdog in ourselves. It is much harder to open up our eyes to the Sarah within us, the powerful person within ourselves who has the ability to hurt others. That part of ourselves that is greedy and self-centered and wants to keep all the money for our family, who acts out of jealousy rather than generosity. We do not want to see that part of ourselves.

We must look at that part of us so we stop the cycle of recreating the story of Hagar and Sarah with different names in different places. So we can put an end to the suffering we cause by not seeing.

Just as when Hagar opened her eyes she beheld the unseen possibility in the form of a well that would save her and her son, may we have the courage in this New Year to open our eyes to the suffering of those who are different from ourselves, as well as to the unseemly parts of ourselves that perpetuate that suffering.

I pray that in this coming year we keep our eyes open wide enough to catch a glimpse of the unseen possibilities of how to work toward economic justice for all.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

May it be God’s will.

 

References

Bobo, Kim. Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid - And What We Can Do About It. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.

 

Goldstein, Rabbi Elyse. “Yom Kippur sermon 5761,” kolel.org. September 14, 2009.

Amidah for Peace, Justice and Immigration

This alternative Amidah was used during mincha prayers by members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic Association outside of an Immigration Processing Center in order to call attention to the plight of immigrants and underscore the importance of the Jewish obligation to welcome the stranger. It is meant to be done as a call and response.

Avot

God of our ancestors. God of immigrants. God of refugees. We are border crossers.
We tie our fate with You who cannot be contained by customs offices. You who requires no passport

Gevurot

You are the power that nurtures, You support the fallen, You free the captive, You give faith to those who sleep in the dust.

Kedusha

We call out to each other, We turn in every direction, Your holy image is the face of every human

Binah

Help us to act with understanding

Teshuva

Return us again and again to your service

Selicha

Forgive us for retreating to our own comfort, Forgive us for not taking responsibility, Forgive us for letting little fears Stop us from helping with compassion.

Ge’ulah

Release us from captivity, Release us from persecution, Release us from misfortune, Help us to heal when rational arguments are insufficient.

Refuah

Heal the suffering that causes people to flee their homes.

Birkat Hashanim

All Bountiful one let every person live with abundance.

Kibutz Galuyot

Blast the great shofar for freedom
Gather in all those in exile!

Din

Restore justice with love and compassion.

Birkat Haminim

Let all wickedness be lost.

Tzadikim

Protect all the righteous people
fleeing war and
fleeing poverty.
Be with those seeking safety
and seeking security.

Binyan Yerushalayim

Build everlasting peace in Jerusalem.

Yeshu’ah

Plant your help in every land.

Kabbalat Tefillah

Hear our voice!
Hear the voice of refugees
Hear the voice of immigrants
Help us hear your voice

Avodah

Take pleasure YHVH in our work.
Lovingly accept our prayer.

Hoda’ah

Modim anachnu lach
We give thanks to you

Birkat Shalom

Sing Oseh Shalom

Addressing Race as a Jewish Community

Yom Kippur is a time when we confess our wrongdoings collectively, and is therefore an opportune moment in the Jewish calendar to reflect on how we can do teshuvah for the ways in which we have failed, communally and individually, to address the issue of racism.

Racism undermines the American Promise, the promise of equality enshrined in our nation’s founding documents, and the promise of opportunity that our ancestors embraced and ultimately experienced when they came to this country. We are a nation founded on the idea that each of us has been endowed with inalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And yet at the same time it took generations for that language to apply to our indigenous peoples, to the slaves brought from Africa, to women, and to others. Racism in particular is the starting point or “original stain” on our moral fabric that forms the basis for many of those other “isms” in our society.

Despite progress, racism persists. Americans still often live in communities segregated by the color of our skin, where “separate but equal” may no longer be the law of the land, but remains the reality for too many when it comes to access to quality education, banking or housing systems, and more. Discrimination based on racial identity is still a reality for many, because of both structural barriers and because of unconscious biases. Our inability to move past the versions of racism that exist in our communities today remains a challenge that we face as Jews and as Americans.

When I ask my African American friends and colleagues how they are feeling in the current environment, one of the most common responses is that they feel they are in a state of national crisis. The physical insecurity that many black Americans experience has moved to the forefront of our national attention, and my heart has broken watching video after video of the shooting or killing of black men. And my heart breaks knowing that police officers put their own lives on the line every day, and yet we are failing to achieve an outcome that delivers equal justice for all Americans.

Some of the most painful stories to hear have been those of fellow parents, including friends and congregants, who fear for the safety of their black children. I recently watched a short documentary1 in which parents described their experience giving “the talk” to their children. This talk isn’t about the birds and the bees. It is a talk about how to interact with police or other authorities to minimize the chance of a violent altercation. One white mom wondered aloud, “I was told to talk to them before they first experience racism. But, when will that be?” Did it already happen, perhaps? How young is too young? A father teared up as he recalled the words he spoke to his son: “Son, you are a beautiful young boy. But in America, because of the color of your skin and of my skin, we are going to deal with a lot of danger… I will do my best to keep you safe.”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard stories like this. A friend from Philadelphia, a prominent lawyer whose children attended the same preschool as my own, has spoken to me about his fears for his children’s safety. Over the last few years, he has had to explain the painful events of the news in ways that don’t scare his young son too much. And he wonders: what does he say when his now six-year-old son becomes eight or nine or ten? My friend has all that he needs—a great career and home, and his children are in fantastic schools—yet he knows that he needs to prepare his son for how authority figures as well as ordinary folks might treat him when he becomes taller and stronger, when he could be perceived as a threat.

When this issue of police violence against African-Americans was coming to my attention, I read a story that has stayed with me. It was by Kimberly Norwood2, a law professor at Washington University who lives in a middle class suburb near Ferguson, the city where Mike Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer sparked protests about police violence, was from. Her suburb is squarely middle class, and she describes in her article that the life she and her family leads is very different than most of her not so far away neighbors from Ferguson. But there are some experiences she shares with those neighbors that are based on race. In one of several examples, she described going on a cruise with her husband. Her sons were teenagers at the time and they would be staying home. They were taking summer enrichment classes at a school one mile from her suburban home and would be walking back and forth to their school.

In addition to the regular things one might need to prepare before leaving on a vacation and leaving teenagers to fend for themselves—she put one other thing at the top of her to do list: email the chief of police. She worried that if her two sons walked one mile to their afterschool enrichment program, they would be the subject of harassment, by local members of the community or by the police themselves; that someone might call into the police “suspicious persons” or they would be picked up or berated in some way, simply because of false assumptions too often made about people who look like them. Norwood contacted the local chief of police and explained her situation. She emailed two pictures of the boys. Norwood met up with the chief and a day later went on her trip.

In her article, she reflects, “I’ve asked myself: How many parents of white sons have thought to add to their to-do-before-leaving town list, ‘Write letter to local police department, so police do not become suspicious’?”

My heart breaks when I hear the stories of people who are treated differently because of their race. Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican Senator, spoke out this summer after the many tragic events that unfolded to share his own personal experience. He spoke about his deep respect for police who serve their country—and also told his own truth: that since his days of becoming a senator, he had been pulled over by police on seven different occasions.

As members of Jewish communities, whose textual tradition and history instruct us to work for justice and equality, we cannot look away from this crisis. There are several texts, too many to quote here, that express Judaism’s commitment to human dignity and righting the wrongs of our society. A fundamental concept derives from the Creation story3, in which we are taught that the first human being was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Later commentators interpret this to mean that every person is of infinite worth and that the diversity of humankind is a positive reflection of God’s glory.4

And there are the many prophetic verses that affirm our commitment to helping the most vulnerable. Our prophetic reading for Yom Kippur morning reminds us each year about the deeper meaning of the fast—to teach us do the right thing, to pursue justice, to let the oppressed go free, to free every yoke!

We also find the pursuit of justice and equality as foundational to the vision of Reconstructionist Judaism, as formulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. In his book, The Future of the American Jew, Kaplan outlines nine “Basic Values in Jewish Religion.” Justice is one of them. Justice, he argues, is based on the assumption that human beings are “intrinsically equal,” notwithstanding their individual differences.5  

In this section, Kaplan argues that our society should be viewed as a community—a social organization in which the welfare of each and every person should be the concern of all—and the life of the whole is the concern of each. These are the conditions under which people can experience self-worth. He writes, “To experience the dignity of selfhood means that every individual must be able to feel that the society in which he lives regards him not merely as a means to an end, but recognizes him as an end in himself.”

It seems to me that Kaplan’s words from a different era speak directly to the issues at play within our society today. For us to have justice, everyone must be able to feel as if they matter—as if they are a subject instead of an object. And we must do as a society what we can to enable the conditions in which each individual, regardless of their station in life or their race, is valued and treated as an equal.

As a community, we not only have texts that teach us about how to treat those who are oppressed, we can rely on our own historical experience. Jews have been and at times remain the “other.” Over the course of history, Jews have experienced systematic persecution, including in our very own United States, where for many years, Jews did not have equal access to jobs or universities because of who they are.

During the Holocaust, Hitler formally assigned Jews the role of “inferior race” and engaged in racially motivated hatred to carry out a plot to wipe out all the Jews. When we think back just a generation or two ago, we know the dangers that come with racial hatred. Having experienced it in our collective history can help us empathize with those who are being discriminated against based on race—and help motivate us to address the problem.

Racism in America is also personal to us because, as we fight it, we do so in a community that is and always has been multi-racial. Often, when Jews think in their mind’s eye about “the Jewish community,” we visualize a uniform white Jewish community. At the same time, it is estimated that about 20%6 of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. And this population is growing.

Tamara Fish, a New York–based African-American Jewish community leader wrote an op-ed in the Forward about the intersection of black and Jewish identities and Jewish involvement in the fight for black lives. She directs her comments to all Jewish readers, saying, “You, as part of the Jewish community, are engaged in the process of raising black children. You need to remember that. This is why Black Lives Matter, because black Jewish children are here. They are your children. They are my children. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

We are likely not going to solve these problems this year or anytime soon after. But we can do something. We can find ways to engage, to learn, and to advocate.

On Yom Kippur, as we seek to take responsibility for communal wrongs, may we find the inspiration to do the challenging work of examining race and better understanding the systems that we have inherited. May we draw upon our faith and history to inspire us to act. May we listen to others’ truths and share our own, and in doing all of this participate in the work of tikkun olam, repair of the world.