Grodno is a small town in what is now Belarus, situated near the borders of Poland and Lithuania. About 25,000 Jews lived there in the late 1800s. One of those was my great-grandfather, Nathan Cohen. At some point, he decided that the city, ravaged by pogroms over the years, was no place for a Jew. By the early 1900s, he was in Baltimore.
Nathan and the other immigrants in my family tree — Sarah Schoenfeld, Isadore Rifkin, Isadore Schoenfeld, Mollie Lurie – all came to the United States for a better life. Their desires were simple — a peaceful existence, a decent job, a lack of persecution, and a future for their children.
Our cover story this month is about the immigrants in our Jewish community. They have come to the U.S. for the same reasons as my forbearers. We welcome them because they are Jews. They are like us. We welcome them with open arms.
But are we missing a basic moral truth? Are we forgetting that all immigrants have a right to the same treatment? Does the immigrant with a different religion or a different skin tone deserve different justice?
The Torah is clear that we are required to offer the stranger a positive and welcoming reception:
When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
We are in a national debate regarding immigrants. The president and supposedly moral evangelicals are painting immigrants as murderers, gang members, drug dealers, etc. They are scapegoating immigrants to justify a political agenda of hate and isolationism. The truth is that immigrants break less laws than the general population.
The haters eagerly tell the undereducated white underclass in middle America that all their troubles are due to immigrants taking their jobs and attacking their values. It’s easier to cast blame than to really look for difficult solutions to equally difficult issues.
As Jews, let’s not fall for such a disingenuous game. The immigrant may look different, speak different languages, have different customs, etc. So did my great-grandparents and yours. Immigrants enrich our community with their traditions, dress, cuisines, etc. As a physician, I have seen the incredible scientific contributions of our immigrant doctors and scientists. Our country is big and strong enough to assimilate the hard-working and motivated of the world. The Ellis Island in our past needs to be defended.
We have a moral requirement that is greater than just not rejecting the immigrant. We have a moral requirement to welcome them. Social justice is at our religious core. One of the happiest days of my life was when my lawyer son decided that he wasn’t intended to be a litigator and instead left a big law firm to work for a local non-profit immigration law program. We can’t all be lawyers, but we can all follow his example. Tomorrow, welcome the immigrant at the retail shop, speak out for equality, teach your children, browbeat your elected officials. Just do something.
Scott Rifkin, MD, Publisher