Yearning to Breathe Free…

This weekend, hundreds of synagogues across North America and around the world will mark National Refugee Shabbat. The event is organized by HIAS, the storied organization founded more than a century ago and responsible for the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. Today, HIAS is on the front line of organizations advocating for more compassionate and sustainable policies for refugees around the world who may not be Jewish but whose well-being goes to the very core of Jewish teachings about the preciousness of human life and the obligation to protect the stranger in our midst.  

This article appeared in eJewish Philanthropy on February 2, 2024.

Last week, I participated in a rabbinic delegation to the Mexican border, organized by HIAS, to see how the United States is trying to control the influx of asylum seekers into this country. We learned about the various administrative procedures and executive orders that have been put in place since the Trump administration to restrict the entry of foreign nationals into our country. Even though President Joe Biden has used “kinder and gentler” language than his predecessor in discussing migrants, the current policies make it no easier for individuals who are fleeing criminal gangs and political violence in their countries to enter the U.S., even though that is a right guaranteed by international human rights law and was long honored by the United States. 

It is impossible to experience what transpires at the Mexico-U.S. border without recalling how many Jews faced similar scenarios in the not-so-distant past. My own father was born in Berlin and was encouraged by his parents to accept an invitation from an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn to leave Nazi Germany. He left two weeks before Kristallnacht, in October 1938, and he came to the U.S. on the last successful voyage of the St. Louis. The next voyage of the St. Louis, in May 1939, came to be called “the voyage of the damned” because the U.S. refused entry to the more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard who were fleeing Europe and the boat was forced to return to Germany.