Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Yom Kippur Evening, 5779: We Were Strangers

“My sweet daughter-in-law, I love you as if you were my own blood but, you cannot come with me it is illegal.” “Mother, I will not leave you. I will risk the danger of crossing the river. Whatever the future holds, I will not leave your side.” “But my daughter!” “Hush, I know the danger but I trust in you, your family, your people.” “It will not be easy child. The only work you will find will be picking crops.” And so they traveled together. The young daughter-in-law seduced a man. They married and had an anchor baby. Who had a son. Who had a son who became the greatest leader in our nation’s history.

Too subtle? Ruth the Moabite, a people that Torah law states should never be allowed in our community, flaunts that law to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Eventually her great grandson, David, rises to the kingship of Israel and, becomes the progenitor of the Messiah. Why was Ruth’s great-grandson chosen for this honor? Because he knew our people’s story of being aliens in a foreign land, and his great-grandmother’s story of being an alien in our land.

We Jews, of all peoples on this planet, should not need commandments to welcome the stranger, to love the stranger as ourselves. Why? Because, as we say each Pesach, we were aliens in the land of Egypt and we know the heart of the stranger. Thus, our hearts and our actions must reflect our understanding of the needs of others who must flee their homes to escape oppression, or rape, or death, or to provide a better life for their families.

If there is one thing I miss from Gates of Repentance, it is the listing of the sin of xenophobia, the sin of fear of strangers. As I said on Rosh Hashanah: “We are all guilty of this….You know you are guilty of this. I know I am…. We all, without exception, make assumptions about people who are from other countries, people who are poor, people who are rich, people who are a different race,… The list goes on.”

We are not only Jews, we are Americans. It breaks my heart seeing hope in America being shunted aside and, xenophobia, rule. We began to shut our doors with the immigration laws of the early 1920’s. These laws were specifically designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans. In their immediacy, these new immigration laws kept out Jews trying to escape the Communist revolutions and counter revolutions. Later, our the United States used these immigration laws to turn away Jews escaping the coming horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust.

A true story. On Thanksgiving eve 1938, Secretary of State Harold Ickes, a Christian and a Republican in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, gave a speech proposing a plan to resettle Jews on farmland outside Anchorage, Alaska. He said this could be: “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions."

Bills were introduced in the Senate and the House but never passed. The charge to defeat the resettlement was led by Alaska Territorial Governor, Ernest Gruening, a Jew. Gruening did not want these kinds of Jews with their strange dress and accents in his state.

A year later, in 1939, the United States turned away the ship St. Louis, forcing its Jewish passengers to return to Europe and the Nazi’s final solution. Even those who survived the camps and the war suffered fear and trembling. Can you ever forget the pictures of those Jews crowding, beseeching, on the St. Louis’s deck?

In 1942, fear, especially xenophobia, again raised its ugly vile head as President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the round up of people who were at least 1/16 Japanese and placing them in concentration camps. Close to 60% of these internees were American citizens by birth or by naturalization. 1/16th, Japanese means having a Japanese great-grandparent. That number 1/16th should echo in your souls. King David was 1/16 Moabite. Hitler determined that anyone who was 1/16th Jewish would be subject to the final solution. 

Incredibly, many of the interned Japanese Americans volunteered to fight in the war. The military established the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and sent them to fight in Europe. The 442nd became the most decorated unit in United States military history. It also suffered large numbers of casualties.

I learned this story about one of the casualties, Sgt. Kazuro Masuda from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in California. Sgt. Kazuro enlisted while interned at Manzanar Concentration Camp in Orange County, California. In Italy, on the night of July 6, 1944, he turned back two major counteroffensives and inflicted heavy casualties after firing at the enemy for twelve hours. Eventually, Sgt. Masuda was killed in action. In 1945, General Joseph Stilwell, flew to the Manzanar concentration camp.  There, on the porch of the shack in which the Masuda family was forced to live, General Stilwell pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Sgt. Masuda’s sister Mary.

At that ceremony was an army Captain who spoke these words: “The blood that has soaked the sands of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world; the only country not founded on race, but on a way and an idea. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”

Forty three years later, that Captain, Ronald Reagan, now President signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 providing redress and restitution to the Japanese who had been interred in the camps. At that ceremony he said: “… (W)e gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.He then told the story of being present for the presentation to the Masuda family. Two years earlier, President Reagan, signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which reformed our immigration system, allowing thousands upon thousands of people to come out of the shadows with no fear of being forced to leave their homes in America.

President Reagan, the archetypal Republican, decided that, when it came to people who made it to our shores, America should be built on hope and not on fear and hatred of the other. Quoting John Winthrop on the Mayflower President Reagan said: “We shall be a city upon a hill….” He continued: “America has not been a story or a byword. That small community of Pilgrims prospered and driven by the dreams and, yes, by the ideas of the Founding Fathers, went on to become a beacon to all the oppressed and poor of the world.”

My family’s story while similar to many of yours. has a unique twist. My grandfather immigrated to Canada from Russia sometime before 1913. There he met my grandmother, also a Russian immigrant. They married and, in 1913 had a son, my father, to go with my grandmother’s two daughters from a previous marriage, his half sisters, Lil and Mae. Six months after my father’s birth they moved to Philadelphia to be with the rest of my grandfather’s family and had a second child, my aunt Ruth. Several years later, my grandfather applied and became a United States citizen. My father and his sister were minors and therefore were naturalized under of their father’s citizenship.

My father spent 18 years of his life serving in the military both overseas and in the States. After serving in the Pacific theater for the entirety of World War II, he was honorably discharged in 1945.

In the fall of 1971 I spent a semester in Israel. My father, who had never left the United States except under the auspices of the United States military, decided to visit me in Israel. In the spring of 1971, taking his birth certificate and his naturalization papers, he applied for his first passport. His application was denied. The reason? He had been naturalized on his father’s papers and not on his own. The Government, after 58 years of living in America, 18 of which were in the military, declared he was not an American citizen. I will never forget the pain in his voice and on his face when he told me what happened that day. Thankfully our Rabbi reached out to our Congressman who arranged another interview for my father. Before the interview he had to obtain sworn and notarized affidavits from his two older half-sisters, Lil and Mae,  and others who had known him throughout his life to swear that he was in fact the Nathan Rosenfeld who arrived in America at the age of six months, and that he had never become a citizen of another country. A year later, long after I was home, he finally got his passport which sat in a drawer unused until the day he died.

When I read last week that our government started revoking the citizenship of Americans born in Texas, stripping the citizenship of people who were legally naturalized, and established a “Denaturalization Taskforce,” I felt a hot poker pierce my heart and soul. We have surpassed the sin of xenophobia and moved to the sin of hating the stranger, the one who is different that lives among us. We learn from the easy way the Nazi government revoked the citizenship of German Jews, that one day it could be us. While first it may be people from our southern border, unless we and our neighbors publicly draw a line and stand up for the strangers living among us, it could easily one day be us in this sanctuary. How do I know? Just ask Gwyneth Barbara of Fairway, Kansas. On September 10, a mere eight days ago, in an interview on KCTV Ms. Barbara told how she was denied a renewal of her passport because she was born at home and not in a hospital her birth certificate, with its official raised seal from the county, did not constitute proof of being born in the United States. The passport office in Houston told her that she could submit any of the following as proof of citizenship: “Border crossing card or green card for your parents issued before your birth.” She had neither as both her parents had been born in the United States, as had her mother’s family since the 1600’s and her father’s family since the 1700’s. The passport office also said she could provide early religious records or a family Bible as proof of citizenship. Her family was not religious so she did not have those either. In America, a government official decided a Bible or Baptismal record was better proof of citizenship than a birth certificate. Finally, she turned to her Republican Senator Jerry Moran’s office for help. A few days later she received her passport with no explanation or apology. If the government can deny Gwyneth Barbara’s citizenship, it can certainly deny yours or mine. Suddenly it is no longer just about the stranger, it is about our neighbors and us.

We know the heart of the stranger for we have been the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger as we love ourselves. We are not commanded to fear, hate, or oppress the stranger, as we have been feared, hated and oppressed.

We are taught that atonement, does not come from our prayers on Yom Kippur. Atonement only comes when we take positive action to change ourselves and undo the wrong we afflicted upon others. Let us stand up to fear. Let us confront bigotry and hatred. Let us rebuild hope and kindness within ourselves, within our nation and our world. Paraphrasing Isaiah: Let my house, my country, my world be a house of hope for all peoples, not just those like us.

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