“For you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.”
During Passover 2021, any Jew who knew the difference between charoset and a hole in a bagel probably heard this phrase a dozen times. So many times, in fact, with so many associations — from salt tears to lying reclined and eating hurried bread — that it is easy to forget the phrase is part of a larger mitzvah, one so central to Judaism that the Talmud reminds us that its mentioned in the Torah “36 times.”
“You shall not oppress or wrong the stranger, for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.”
It’s a self-deprecating truism that Jews will disagree about almost everything. But this time of year, when our ancestors became migrants crossing an inhospitable desert, now marks the single greatest opportunity for the Jewish community to agree to come together to make a difference in the lives of “the stranger” in our own community.
At present, a record 79.5 million individuals around the globe stand displaced by violence, persecution, famine and natural disasters — all exacerbated by climate change. 46 million have left their home countries and are defined as refugees. And 11 million immigrants are living and working in the United States, including DREAMers, TPS designees, green card holders and undocumented immigrants.
Of those, more than 1 million are documented seekers of asylum, and tens of thousands of them are being detained, often in horrific conditions, as their claims are processed. Although raw numbers are hard to pin down because of shifting conditions and lack of transparency, we do know that more than 21,000 of these asylum seekers are unaccompanied children, many of whom have lost at least one parent and are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries — from gang kidnappings, sexual violence and murder to LGBTQ discrimination and abuse.
U.S. and international law grant these human beings the legal right to cross the border and seek asylum. And yet, at our government’s behest, asylum seekers are still forced to “Remain in Mexico” due to the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, and most lack the legal aid and translation services that are a near-requirement for successfully gaining refugee or asylum status. Tents serve as both courtrooms and living quarters in massive refugee camps in Matamoros and Tijuana. Children are still being torn from parents or guardians with whom they’ve made treacherous, life-threatening journeys. We still see case after case of parents trying to learn where their child was taken. It is taking months, sometimes years, to track down separated families. And all this is occurring during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, with deaths from COVID-19 still, sadly, on the rise.
The traumas of these moments are not singular, and they do not disappear with reunification.
What we see at our southern border calls all Jews who believe in that phrase we recite at Passover — and indeed any human being with a shred of compassion — to attention and action.
What we see at our southern border calls all Jews who believe in that phrase we recite at Passover to attention and action.
Jews are no strangers to persecution and migration. In fact, the refugee and asylum resettlement system we have today was established under the 1951 UN Geneva Convention (and signed by both the United States and Israel) in direct response to Jews’ inability to safely seek refuge from the Shoah. The Jewish community of Los Angeles — home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms, the Holocaust, the former Soviet Union, Iran and other expulsions from throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond — would not exist if not for these laws. It is our obligation to uphold, expand and perfect them.
We are bombarded with images of suffering at the border and in refugee camps around the world, and we Jews in Los Angeles watch and ask: What can we do? We know that as Jews we are obligated “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” — “not to sit idly by.”
That’s why a group of over 40 congregations, organizations and individuals dedicated to the core Jewish values of welcoming the stranger have joined HIAS, the oldest refugee aid organization in the country, in solidarity to form the Jewish Coalition Assisting Refugees and Immigrants — Los Angeles (JCARI-LA). Our goal is to bring the myriad Jewish organizations and synagogues supporting immigrants and refugees all together.
Through our listserv and quarterly meetings, we amplify the important work already being done in the space, breaking down silos between Jewish religious movements, secular organizations and individual activists and organizers. Our mission is to support immigrants and refugees, plain and simple, through advocacy, education and direct service. Our first campaign, in partnership with Miles4Migrants, seeks donations of airline miles or rewards, which go towards reuniting asylum seekers and their families, allowing them to restart their lives in the United States.
Since February 26, 2021, alone, Miles4Migrants has used nearly one million donated frequent flyer miles to airlift over 60 people fleeing the southern border. Many of those flights have reunited families with children with the assistance of JCARI-LA member organization Every.Last.One. Just last week, Miles4Migrants flew a mother from New York to San Diego to free her young daughter, who had been hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 while in detention at the San Diego Convention Center. She won’t be the last child rightfully reunited with her family, and Miles4Migrants still needs frequent flyer miles and credit card point pledges to go towards reuniting more families.
We cannot sit out this crisis. Our families were refugees. Our history is a refugee story. Especially in the wake of Passover, it is Jewish to welcome the stranger. Especially as COVID-19 plagues the world, we cannot ignore the suffering of the vulnerable.
The Torah commands us 36 times: Welcome the stranger. So together, let’s welcome new neighbors, new citizens, asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees to our communities. And let’s not just welcome them but also serve them, support them, advocate on behalf of them and stand with them — because their stories are innately tied to our own story, legacy and identity as American Jews.
Haley Broder is a member of IKAR. Jess Winfield is a member of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood. They are Co-chairs of the Jewish Coalition Assisting Refugees and Immigrants – Los Angeles (JCARI-LA).