An American Immigrant Family’s Responsibility

Last week, we had the honor of celebrating Chanukah at the White House.
December 11, 2015

Last week, we had the honor of celebrating Chanukah at the White House. Joined by President and Mrs. Obama, we watched as the candles of the festival of light were lit by Rabbi Susan Talve. As the lights danced, we couldn’t stop reflecting on how remarkable it was that we, children of refugees, were taking part in such an occasion.  The illumination emanating from the White House Menorah seemed to symbolize the lights of the Statue of Liberty shining on our parents and other family members who escaped Nazi Europe to land in New York on boats in 1939.

We the children of refugees, along with other descendants of immigrants, have accomplished incredible things as Americans—and that is why we feel compelled to call on this country to open its borders to the tired, hungry, and poor from Syria and elsewhere. That is our proud history as Americans, to welcome those without a home. 

Our parents had no idea what our family’s future would hold when they arrived on American shores. They only knew that America offered freedom, safety, and generosity. Our parents escaped from Nazi rule; from places like Germany where our mother’s childhood ended so young, and from Vienna where our father and his friends were forced to clean the streets with a toothbrush as Hitler readied to enter the city. Coming to America was literally a matter of life or death for our family; our great-grandmother was told she could not stay in the United States after she arrived here and was forced to return to Europe where she was murdered by Nazis. That’s what happens when America closes its doors to refugees.

As children growing up in California, social justice and Judaism were intertwined in our household – but not abstractly. And the issues weren’t partisan, they were not matters of being a Democrat or Republican. They were matters of right and wrong. They were matters of saving lives.

Our parents instilled in us a sense that in America each person is valued as an individual. They instilled in us a sense that all are welcome in the great American mosaic. They instilled in us a sense that anything is possible here.

And anything is. In 1980, we became the first brother-sister in history to be ordained as rabbis. Karen was a pioneer, the first female rabbi to work for the Reform Movement, the first woman congregational rabbi in Los Angeles—and the fourth in all of Jewish history. She served at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles as a rabbi for 25 years and today she continues to teach rabbinic students. As head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Steve is honored to lead the largest organization of Rabbis in the world, with colleagues not just in North American but in Jewish communities in Europe, the FSU, and Israel.  Both live full Jewish lives that our parents or grandparents could only have dreamed of.

None of this would have been possible without American generosity. More specifically, none of it would have been possible without Americans who opened their borders to our family.

That’s precisely why our family feels a special obligation to call on America to live up to its highest ideals, to live the words of the Statute of Liberty, and to offer its blessings to refugees from around the world. It is especially vital for America to maintain a humane immigration policy when we hear ignorant, demagogic calls to close our borders to people simply because of their religion or nationality. Our family knows those fears well, and we know what happens when America acts on them.

We also know what happens when America is truest to its best traditions. Our ancestors in Europe who often were forbidden even to practice their Judaism could never have imagined their children – their direct descendants – being rabbis and being invited by the leaders of most powerful country in the world, into the home of our President, to celebrate Chanukah.

That’s what America has done for us. And we need to make it possible for others to come here and realize the American dream. That’s the Jewish way. And that’s the American way. 

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Karen Fox is Rabbi Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

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