Testing Our Love of the Stranger

As we just read in our Torah, God called out to Abraham: “Abraham, Abraham,” “Hineini,” Abraham replied, “Here I am.” “Abraham, take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, Isaac, and take him up to a mountain, and there I want you to sacrifice him as an offering to me.” 

Aside from the issues this raises of child sacrifice, I find God’s challenge to Abraham a bit ironic, having spent the greater part of the last three months working to do just the opposite – to keep my son, my only son, the son whom I love, Aiden, healthy and happy. As a pre-amble to the story in the Torah, we learn that “God was about to test Abraham.”

If God had really wanted to test Abraham, he would have made him parent Isaac for a few months in 2019. Will Isaac breast fed or not? How long? In public? Will he eat organic food, non GMO? Will he ask Sarah to do the same if she decides to breastfeed? Will he put Isaac in their room for the first three months as recommended by the American Pediatric Association? Will he have enough stimulation? How much have you already contributed to his college fund? Abraham, don’t put him on his stomach! That music is going to stunt his development for life! You’re using the wrong diaper cream! How could you possibly have let him cry have you not heard about the silent orphanage in the Philippines?! He isn’t reading Shakespeare at 3? He’ll never get into Yale….

Parenting in 2019 is a challenge for sure. But I know that myself, Jenny, and every other parent are doing just fine – because our primary responsibility is to keep them safe. And it’s scary, because keeping a child safe is not a given, even when parents do everything right. There are people here today who have lost a child and people who have struggled to get pregnant. There exist forces outside of our control that test our belief in God. For all of those who are forever in mourning or who are wrestling with infertility, we wish you comfort in our communal embrace. I know that I will worry about Aiden and Maggie’s health and safety for the rest of my life.

Raising a child is a test of patience, asking a parent to sacrifice their child, such as God challenged Abraham– that’s more than a test – it is an impossible request.

I am lucky. I’m able to raise my children in a wonderful location, surrounded by wonderful people, in a nurturing loving community. I’m worried about what foods I give them, not if I can give them food. I also don’t fear about their safety at home, or when Maggie is here at the Nursery School, or when we go to the park. I feel confident that I am able to provide both her and Aiden with a solid foundation upon which they can build their future. For all of these gifts, I am grateful.

I’m grateful because all of these gifts were bestowed upon me as well. Partly do to my white skin, partly because my parents worked hard to provide for my brothers and me and partly because I was lucky enough to have been born in the United States.

Not everyone is so lucky. There are people in the United States who do not have the same gifts that I was given and they cannot give the same to their children. There are also people born outside of the US, perhaps in war-torn countries or other places plagued by violence and destruction. They fear for their own lives, they fear for their children’s lives, they cannot give their children food or shelter. The try to pour a solid foundation and each time it crumbles beneath their feet.

These people have faith, and they hear a call. They believe that if only they can make it to the US, like my great-grandparents in the late 1800’s escaping the pogroms of Russia, or my grandmother escaping the Holocaust in the 1930’s, they can find a better life for themselves and their children.

As they climbed the mountain together, Isaac inquires of his father, “Abraham, “Father, Isaac asks” And Abraham answers, “Yes, my son.” “Here are the firestone and the wood;” Isaac points out, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.[1]

We can imagine the tens of thousands of parents setting out on the arduous journey through the desert and their little children looking up at them. “Father or mother,” they call out, “I know that we have some supplies, but where are we going and will they let us in?” Their parent answers, “My child, God will show us the way to a better life, we must have faith and keep going together.”

Like Abraham, like all of the parents sitting here today, parents emigrating with their families are trying their best to provide for their children. They are not thinking about which diaper cream to use, or about using plastic or wooden utensils, or what nursery school to send their children. They are attempting to fulfill the most basic task of keeping them safe and healthy.

With horror and outrage many of us learned that upon arrival at our border, in an attempt to dissuade others from entering, our government began separating the children, one by one, from their parents. A few weeks ago we started sending Maggie to the Nursery school. The first time that I brought her I felt anguish at leaving her and I knew with 100% certainty that she was safe and that it was the right decision. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to have a child forcefully taken from me, without knowing what would happen to them. After public outcry, many of these children were reunited with their parents. However, according to the ACLU[2], a small number of these children are still separated from their parents. Some of them now live with foster families, while the unfortunate few languish along with other minors who attempted to seek refuge in the US by themselves. They are jailed in for-profit detention centers in isolated locations, often without basic services as required by law.

One of the parents who was separated from his daughter was Nazario. Living in his Guatemallan mountain village with his wife and two children, a local gang began to threaten and harass Nazario. Eventually when they threatened him with murder he decided with his wife to leave and to take their five-year-old daughter with him, leaving his wife and two-year-old at home. He feared for his life. He made the difficult journey through Central America and Mexico and on May 16, 2018 crossed the border into San Diego where he and his daughter we promptly picked up by border patrol. Nazario admitted to entering the US illegally and asked for asylum. Immediately his daughter Filomena was ripped from his arms, screaming. He was told that he would see his daughter in 2-3 days, but it would be months before Nazario would see her again.

Without his knowledge she was sent to a detention facility in New York. Recalling hearing the news, Nazario told reporters that he didn’t even know where New York was. Back in Guatemala the gang came looking for Nazario. Finding only his wife Marcela, they beat her up, but, as she recalled, “at least they didn’t kill me.” A caseworker who met Filomena, Nazario’s daughter, described her: “as a little girl who was cried every day [and who missed]… her father very much,” The caseworker continued to describe Nazario crying daily as well.”

Broken, Nazario was told that if he dropped his asylum claim he would see Filomena. He chose to do so and was deported, yet was put on a plane without his daughter. After working with charitable organizations for three months, Filomena was finally flown to Guatemalla City, which was a nine-hour journey for Nazario’s impoverished family. At last the family was reunited. Three months of torture for the crime of seeking a better future.

Jewish law teaches that we must love the Stranger for we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt, Ve-ahavtem et hager ki gerim hayitem be-eretz mitzrayim.[3]We maintain the collective consciousness of slavery in Egypt. Furthermore we are commanded to maintain one law for the citizen and stranger alike[4]. For two-thousand years our ancestors were the stranger, always the other, and living throughout the world. We were subjugated, attacked, expelled, and murdered. Even the founders of this congregation, 179 years ago had to fight for equality. It was illegal at the time to form a synagogue and it took an act of the Connecticut Legislature to make Congregation Mishkan Israel a legal entity. In 2019 we still hear the chants of the men in Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us,” we continue to confront antisemitism, even here in Hamden, CT. Our history and conscious compel us to defend both ourselves and the most vulnerable among us.

We have a long history at CMI of caring for the strangers who dwell among us. We marched with Dr. King in the 60’s, re-settled refugees from Russia in the 80’s, and today we welcome and support refugees from Syria and Iraq and have declared ourselves a sanctuary congregation.

Through JCARR, the Jewish refugee resettlement program, our community has given hope to four families who fled danger and were lucky enough to be granted visas into our country. Our members have shown them abundant love, fulling the commandment in the Torah and demonstrating that we have learned from our own past. Even though our President threatens to prevent any more refugees from entering our country, there is still the possibility of helping more families through JCARR.

Our declaration as a sanctuary congregation, one of only a handful of Jewish congregations in the US, also made us a part of New Sanctuary Connecticut where we stand with the nine other faith communities in Connecticut to support undocumented immigrants facing immediate deportation and separation from their families. As we continue this work, New Sanctuary CT, along with The Immigrant Bail Fund and other advocacy organizations is exploring how we can help those who are currently imprisoned in the detention centers,

On Sukkot we will open a photo exhibit in our rotunda that bears witness to the lives of two men in sanctuary: Sujitno Sajuti and Neslon Pinos. Sujitno was granted a stay and left the Unitarian Universalist church in Meridan where he had been staying for 598 days. He and his wife entered the country legally, on a Fullbright Scholarhsip in 1981 and never left. For 38 years he has been a peaceful resident of Connecticut.

Nelson Pinos is not as lucky. Nelson came to the US 26 years ago as a teenager. He has lived, worked and raised a family of three in the years since. He was first detained in 1993 but quickly released and resumed working with ICE on a path toward citizenship in 2012. Nelson was told that he wasn’t a priority for deportation, and he continued living with periodic check-in’s. In 2017, shortly after the election, ICE began ramping up deportations and Nelson received the orders to leave. Not wanting to be separated from his family and returned to Equador, now a distant memory, Nelson sought sanctuary at First and Sommerfield church in New Haven, where he was lived since November 30, 2017. ICE knows where he lives, but they currently observe a policy of not entering “sensitive locations,” such as houses of worship. Nelson is fighting his original 1993 ruling. He is able to see his family, though they do not live at the church with him. I have visited Nelson. He is a kind man, with a gentle smile and a loving family. We must do more than pray for his release.[5]

Soon we will build and decorate our Sukkah, a temporary dwelling place that reminds us of our fragility. We hope that you will come and celebrate in our sukkah – sukkot is known as zman simchateinu, the season of joy. Yet our joy will be mitigated with our despair for all of who remain trapped in sanctuary, temporary dwellings from which they desperately seek release. Through these photos, we will bear witness to Sujinto and Nelson’s experience and will dedicate ourselves to working on Nelson’s release and the release of all who are held in detention.

God calls out to each of us – Brian, God calls. Jane, Richard, Elaine, Michael, Tessa. God challenges us to accept this call every day, and sometimes asks us to commit even before we know exactly what God asks us to do. We must have the faith of Abraham to accept the call to help not knowing what awaits us on the mountain. Hineini, we must answer, – here we are and ready to help.

There are many ways to help within our CMI community. We are always seeking volunteers to help both JCARR and our work as a sanctuary congregation. If you are interested in taking action, with both time and resources, please find more information on our website and bulletin. In addition, thanks to our Social Justice team, we can sign up to receive occasional emails guiding us toward appropriate rallies, protests, and educational opportunities. If you are not signed up and want to receive these emails, look out for a link in the next CMI News and bulletin.

Atop the mountain, God called out to Abraham again – stopping him from sacrificing his son, and providing a ram stuck in the bushes by its horns in place of Isaac. We remember this ram every time we hear the Shofar, a ram’s horn. In a few minutes we will hear the final calls of the shofar. We’ll hear tekiah, one long note that brings us to attention. Next we’ll hear Sh’varim, three notes reminding us of the cries of of those imprisoned and sent away in search of a better future.  Third we hear T’ruah, short, staccato sounds awakening our slumbering souls that have grown complacent,[6] motivating us to take action. Finally we will hear the tekiah g’dolah, the beautiful long sound that gives us hope for a better future and reminds us of the miracles in our lives.

As we hear the sound of the shofar, may we remember our own freedoms, and commit ourselves to share our freedom with others. May we find our own redemption and work to redeem others, bringing sweetness, hope and joy into our world.

Shanah Tova u’metukah, may we have a sweet and happy new year.

[1] Genesis 22:6

[2] https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights/immigrants-rights-and-detention/family-separation

[3] Deut. 10:19

[4] Ex. 12:49

[5] https://www.kqed.org/news/11677196/one-migrant-familys-story-of-separation-at-the-border

[6] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/609499/jewish/Shofar.htm