What We Can Learn Today Having Been “Strangers” Ourselves

How do we help our older children, who may be aware of all that is unfolding in our country, make sense of the uncertainty and conflicts between large segments of our citizenry?

Every family has a right to their own political point of view.  With all that is going on in the U.S. at the present moment, we must remember that debates between conservatives and liberals are as old as the country itself.  As a parent, Jew, and Jewish educator, I believe it is important to separate out politics from justice and compassion.  For example, we can debate the merits and constitutionality of the recent executive order that restricts immigration and movement from the seven Muslim countries on the list.

However, can we ignore the innocent families that were unjustly separated because the order was poorly executed? Can we remain silent when a mother is separated from her child, a wife from her husband? And what about the anxieties it is creating in children and university students all across America, fearful that they will be expelled even though they are here legally? The National Association of Independent Schools had to issue a statement regarding this concern.  How do we insure we are not targeting an entire religious group while giving favor to another?

Our tradition is unambiguous:

“Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-4)

We cannot become as callous as to lump all people of a particular religion into one group. We, as Jews, know more than anyone the consequences of such actions. We need to open our hearts and our compassion to all people.

We need to teach our children empathy – and it seems that too many adults need to learn empathy as well.

True empathy is the feeling of being able to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.  Who more than Jews can identify with and should stand up for any people who are singled out or discriminated against?

We can reassure our children that whether we agree with him or not, President Trump wants to make sure we are safe, even if we disagree with his process and politics. We can tell our children that he wants to uphold his promises and help Americans, but we can, and must, hold him accountable for sloppy governance that hurts fellow citizens and “strangers” who are in this country legally. We have a moral obligation to call out our government and our president for such actions. We need border security, and to open our arms to innocent refugees, many of whom are women and children fleeing war-torn areas. It is not only just, it is part of our American narrative, much like it is part of the Jewish narrative. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20.)

How might our history have been different if other people had cried out on our behalf? How many Jews would be alive today if America had not been isolationist in the 1930s, closing its borders to Jews?

There is no room for discrimination, prejudice or hatred in American politics or culture.  There is too much of it right now, perpetrated by those on both sides of the political spectrum, and it simply flies in the face of our Jewish values and American principles. We are talking at each other, and no one is listening or trying to understand the other’s pain. This conduct is the enemy of empathy.

We need to stop — and see the face of God in one another. We need to pause and remind ourselves that each human life is sacred, and deserves dignity. This we can teach our children.

We are at a pivotal point – what America do we envision in this moment, the America of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor…” or an America that in these modern times has to tighten its borders and refuse access to refugees and others for the safety of its citizens? It is a perfectly legitimate debate for people with different views to have. It cannot, however, be devoid of justice and compassion. If we listen to each other, we can find another way; a way that provides reasonable security so that those who want to harm our citizens are kept out, while making sure those who need refuge are welcomed in our country. After all, we were all immigrants and many of our ancestors sought refuge in America as well. This we can teach our children.

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