December 8, 2019

Yom Kippur: A Time to Find the Refugee Inside of Us

The refugee experience is one of loss. Loss of family, friends, language, history, culture, work, home — almost everything known. The journey to find a safe haven involves leaving behind the familiar and struggling with uncertainty, trauma and angst. Refugees begin new lives in unfamiliar cultures. Many never find that safe haven and are left to wander Earth. For those who find sanctuary, many overcome extremely difficult obstacles to shape new lives.

The goal of Passover is to connect with the existential reality that we were, in fact, refugees. This task is not easy as our lives in America are so far removed from our historical narrative. However, Yom Kippur is different. It is a time for self-examination, honesty and personal change. Are we, too, not looking for a safe haven? A way to grieve our losses? A way to reshape a meaningful life in a tumultuous and unstable world?

The refugee struggle with loss and efforts to create life anew also is the human experience. As we progress through life, we go through many stages: We lose the wonder of childhood; we lose the protection of the school environment; we lose the exaltation of first love; we lose dreams; we lose our loved ones; many lose themselves. We grapple with ambiguity and a lack of clarity about our future (both personally and as a country) and try to adjust to the fast-changing world around us. Many of us wonder what the future will bring and how we can thrive in it.

On a superficial level, today’s American Jews have very little in common with refugees. At a much deeper level, we share much. On Yom Kippur, we dive deep within to explore the refugees within our own souls, hearts and consciences. Like the stirring sounds of the shofar, the overarching goal of the High Holy Days is to alarm us, awaken us to our inner lives and help us reconnect to our values, history, ideals, purpose and sense of self-worth.

The liturgy is about evaluating our lives and asking us difficult questions, such as who shall live and who shall die. These are not literal questions, but ones with far deeper meaning. How shall I live in these turbulent times? How do I infuse my life with meaning even when life did not turn out as I expected?

The journey of life, even in the best of circumstances, for those who wander Earth as refugees is horrifying. Many will never find a safe haven. Many will never have all that we take for granted. Yet their journeys do not diminish the challenge of our journeys. We face health issues, personal challenges, loss of loved ones and a constant state of confusion and tumult in the current political climate — all of which greatly impact us. 

On Yom Kippur, we dive deep within to explore the refugees within our own souls, hearts and consciences.

The refugee experience offers a paradigm of how to grapple with our own challenges. Some refugees end up scarred for life, never able to move on from the horrible traumas they survived. Yet, many find incredible ways to build new lives, always carrying the past with them but living in the present with courage, resilience and hope. Over the years, I have had the chance to “bear witness,” being present in many refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa. They are sobering places, but each time, I meet people who teach me a great deal about my own journey on Earth and how I can better make the most of my life.

Meron Semedar, a refugee from Eritrea who survived horrific brutality, offers some great insights we can use as we welcome in the new year, 5780. He quotes an African proverb: “He who does not know where he came from does not know where he is going.” He goes on to say, “It is not an easy road — but hope is the oxygen of my life. I have hope in humanity.”

On Yom Kippur, we pause and withdraw from the world in a day of self-reflection, to see where we have been, where we now are, and where we might be headed. We read the prophetic words of Isaiah: “Is this the kind of fast I delight in? A fast merely to deprive one’s body?” The answer is an emphatic “no.”

We are told the fast should lead to action: to helping the oppressed, to freeing the shackles of all those enslaved. Freeing the shackles starts with ourselves. What prevents me from being the person I wish to be? What stops me from listening to the prophetic words of Isaiah and integrating them into my own life?

Yom Kippur is designed to be a day that fosters humility and honesty. It is a time of finding the best in our nature and not losing ourselves in this tumultuous culture that demeans so many people, is filled with violence and often offers little hope. It is reclaiming what is good, uplifting and the best of human nature. Like with Meron, it is finding hope, even when it seems like it has disappeared, and knowing that if we do better, so will humanity. Only through serious self-reflection can we emerge into the new year with a broader perspective, renewed strength and a deeper resolve to uplift the most vulnerable in our midst.


Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco. His book, “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope,” was published in August by Rutgers University Press. He served as dean of the campus and director of the rabbinic school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles from 1982-97.