Parashat Shlach Lecha, 2020

International Refugee Shabbat

The birth of the Jewish People took place in the desert, as we have read in the Torah during these Shabbatot. Those long-ago tribal clans were united with a history and a common destiny through the Exodus from Egypt and the passage from slavery to liberty. The consciousness of those more than 400 years of slavery is foundational and remains in our collective memory, which we remember in each Kiddush and in each Shabbat Amidah. Yes, our ancestors were slaves, and they were also refugees.

Like many of your parents, mine were also refugees. My paternal grandparents escaped from the pogroms in Russia and Lithuania, just like Yudi’s maternal grandparents. My maternal grandparents escaped as refugees from the persecution of Jews in Aleppo, Syria, where there was once a vibrant Jewish community. Yudi’s father’s family escaped from Germany just before the Shoah. Unfortunately, one of the uncles stayed there, was in the hell of Auschwitz and survived it, but died a few days after the “Death March.” Yes, our parents, like most of yours too, were refugees. The difference is that some ships arrived in New York and others in Buenos Aires.

Some of my uncles, Jewish refugees from Europe, were taken to the countryside, in the province of Entre Ríos, about 6 hours by car from Buenos Aires, and there they became “Jewish Gauchos”. Like many other immigrants, they came from winters of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, to humid, mosquito-filled summers of 115 degrees. They could speak no more than Yiddish, and had never worked the land or raised cattle.  But they managed, progressed, created the first agricultural cooperatives in Argentina, sent their children and grandchildren to schools and universities to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and among them, a liberal rabbi. I cannot imagine what my Russian grandfather descended from Hasidim would have thought if he found out that his grandson is a reform rabbi.

Yudi’s maternal grandmother, our beloved “Abuelili”, exchanged a grand piano for a bag of potatoes, in order to survive. And “Oma,” the maternal grandmother had hidden in her rag doll the few family jewels that could be taken from Germany. Everything was OK in order to escape to freedom.

They escaped as refugees and the Argentina of that time, like the United States of that time, opened the doors for them. They did not see the refugees as rare and contagious bugs, but as a source of progress for the country. It is not clear to me whether there was a deep sense of humanism in addition to an interest in growth. I doubt it. But there was no such phobia like that we have today against immigrants in general, and against refugees in particular.

We are a people of immigrants and refugees, and our countries developed and grew, in thanks to immigrants and refugees from so many places. I share with you these personal experiences, because this Shabbat is International Refugee Day. For us as Jews, defending the human rights of refugees is essential. Failure to do so would be like betraying our own condition.

And for Americans, both in the south and in the north of the continent, it would be like denying history. Or are the white supremacists all descendants of aboriginal peoples? Or did their grandparents and great-grandparents not come to America from other latitudes, often escaping from wars and difficult situations?

This Shabbat, I invite you to think about our own grandparents, to recognize that much of who we are is thanks to them, and to become aware of the importance of the Mitzvah to love the stranger, as it is written in today’s Parasha, Parashat Shlach (Numbers 15:15-16): “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger. It shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before Adonai. The same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.”

We are all creatures of God.