Open The Gates

“For you have known the heart of the stranger….” (Exodus 23:9)

The picture above shows my mother, Regina Ohringer, mostly hidden by the man in the white suit in the middle. You can see on the right my Aunt Lottie. They were with their parents on the SS Flandre, a French ship that in May, 1939, along with the German ship, the St. Louis, was trying to bring its Jewish refugee passengers to freedom in Cuba. When Cuba changed its mind and would not let them disembark, the ship went to Miami Beach. President Roosevelt instructed the Coast Guard to block the ship from docking. My mother and her family were forced to return to France, where a few weeks later the Nazis overran the country. Fortunately, due to the combined efforts of generous Chicagoans like Grant Pick, Sr., Sam Block (of Jenner Block Law Firm), and William Paley (of CBS) my mother and her family were able to get to America in 1941 by Pan Am flying boat.

Because of this personal history I cannot stay silent when I see what is happening to legitimate refugees who are coming to America for the same reason my family and maybe yours arrived, so well captured by the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. If we stop being a country that welcomes the poor, tired and frightened, then we no longer are serving our famous mission that President Reagan liked to call “the city on the hill”. Obviously we are required to protect ourselves from terror. But think of the countless Jewish refugees not allowed into America during the Holocaust because they might be Nazi spies. Think of the cruel American Japanese internment camps. Have we not matured as a country in 70 years?

When, in the 1970s, my mother was well established in this country she began taking me and my twin brother with her to furnish the homes for Russian Jews who were fleeing the USSR and being welcomed in the U.S. I know in her way she was trying to give back for the belated gift of being welcomed in this country. I hope all of us feel a debt to help others, just as we or our ancestors were helped.

My synagogue, Temple Sholom of Chicago, had planned to welcome a refugee family this spring. Our Sholom Justice group will be doing whatever they can to keep us ready for the time when we can enact our plan.
In the meantime, I cannot stand by and let our country sink into cruel xenophobia. We are better than that.

Included in the poem on the Statue of Liberty are these words: A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning. Imprisoned lightning? Perhaps this refers to the latent power in each of us to redeem the world though righteous acts of kindness for others. If so I hope we find a way to release this lightning, through pressure on our government to open our gates to the needy and persecuted, and through welcoming the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

My mother has passed away but her voice is still strong. It says to me: “Take care of these people!”

marching

This week the Jewish People read in the Torah about the enslavement of our ancestors.
The daily fare of the Jewish slaves in their Egyptian exile was cruel. What began as forced labor steadily degenerated into acts of unspeakable brutality and horror, leading to Pharaoh’s decree to murder all newborn male infants.
While the physical labor was backbreaking, the moral toll was similarly bitter. The family unit was shattered, wives separated from husbands, who were forced to remain at their work sites in faraway fields. The people were demoralized and depressed, stripped of any of their former dignity or self-respect. Under the daily terror of the slaver’s whip, it appeared that any good future was hopeless.

One group of slaves, however, did not give in – this group continued to hope. They preserved their human dignity; they continued to dream of a better life.
This group of slaves was the Jewish women.
“In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.” So says the ancient Jewish text, the Talmud.
The Talmud explains: After an exhausting day of excruciating labor, the women would polish their mirrors and use them to beautify themselves for their husbands.
At night, the women would sneak out to the men’s camps, bringing hot, nourishing food. They would heat water in the fields and bathe their husbands’ wounds.
The women spoke soft, soothing words. “Do not lose hope. We will not be slaves to these degenerates all our lives.”
Many women conceived during these visits, subsequently giving birth to the children who would ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

How appropriate that we learn of these women in connection with this week’s Torah portion. As you know many thousands of women will be marching in Washington and elsewhere – including downtown Chicago – on this Shabbat. The reasons for the marching are many. The anger is real. But so is the hope that says we cannot give up on our country’s ability to find the right tone of civic discourse, to reach out to those who have been unlucky in life, to those whose fight each day is filled with despair and disillusionment.
Politics aside, the reality in our country these days cannot be ignored. There is much anger, argument, refusal to listen, and lack of respect. There is genuine inequality and needless suffering. But there is also hope that we can reorient our society based on mutual respect and that indescribable but genuine American spirit.
And so I ask that, whatever our mood or politics this weekend, we remember the ancient courage of Israelite women, who would not settle for a life of despair. Such courageous women saved us before and they can do so once again.
With sholom,
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
PS Please join us for worship this Friday night, January 20, where the sermon will not be about the Inauguration.