Rabbi Daniel Brenner: Refugee Shabbat 2021

Erev Shabbat Sermon, March 5, 2021

Tonight across the country, reform and conservative synagogues are commemorating Refugee Shabbat, a Project of the Hebrew immigrant aid society. And this weekend in Santa Barbara, many faith communities are participating in Love your neighbor weekend, a celebration of our immigrant populations.  How fortunate that these two weekends coincided.

As serious as this topic is, and as important as it is to the Jewish community, I’d actually like to start with a short comedy clip, a famous sketch from the 1970’s in Israel. , I’ll play about 4-5 minutes of it, but I think it is a great example of the societal reaction to immigration.

Every group of new arrivals become the established community when the next wave comes.  And eventually, the anger grows to hate any notion of a new immigrant or refugee. How similar it is here in the US.  How many generations did it take for us to cast off the identity of outsider? Our families who came over 2, 3, 4 generations ago, fleeing persecution from Europe or other countries of conflict, how many of us still feel the unease of being an immigrant in this country? I think most of us would answer that we don’t. And I worry that in our comfort, we have become complacent.

According to the most recent UN counts, there are currently 80 million people displaced due to violence and persecution. 80 million.  That is equivalent to every American west of the Rockies.  Of those 80 million, 30-35 million are children.

The count of displaced persons in the world are separated into two groups.  The larger group, about 54 million, are called Internally displaced, meaning that they have been forced to flee their homes, but have not left their country of origin. The smaller 26 million are known as refugees, those who have left the borders of their country and fled elsewhere.

America has a history of being a refuge to those fleeing persecution.  For decades, the US resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined, at times taking on 200-300% more.  Former President Trump was not wrong when he demanded the world needs to step up their numbers, and when he cut American admittance of refugees from 97,000 in 2016 to 33,000 in 2017 and down to 23,000 in 2018, the rest of the world miraculously stepped up.  After averaging between 30-40,000 a year, in 2017 and 2018 the world accepted an average of 80,000 refugees a year.  Now that President Biden has recommitted American acceptance to its previous numbers, the world could be finding new homes for around 200,000 refugees a year.  Unfortunately, at that rate, it will take 125 years to resettle all current refugees.  It is hard to imagine the correct solution to this problem. It feels daunting and insurmountable.   The Torah provides a glimpse at a solution, but unfortunately it is so radical, so contrary to who we are, we may not be able to admit or accept that it is there.

In this week’s Torah portion we find the infamous story of the golden calf.  The Israelites, scared at the long absence of Moses, rush to Aaron crying “build us something to worship!”  Aaron collects gold from the community and melts it into a calf which the people offer sacrifices to.  The Israelites were too afraid to see the bigger picture, and too impatient to find out what would be next, so they threw their gold, their most precious resource at a false solution.

Holiness and community are not built by throwing resources at a problem.

Contrastingly the Torah introduces the half shekel tax in this parasha. Each person, no matter how rich, how poor, old, or just 20 years old, would be required to give one half-shekel of silver toward the building of the tabernacle and the maintenance of the holy objects.  This is a meticulous process that is slowly achieved through the counting of each individual in the community.  And the equitable nature of the gift implies that in the eyes of God and religious ritual, all are equal no matter their status.

In a dvar on this story, Rachel Travis writes that the half-shekel of silver holds specific symbolism.  Why not a whole shekel she asks? Because by only giving half,  the Israelites are meant to recognize their gift alone is not complete.  They require each other to fulfill the completion of their gift.

This is the radical notion of Torah.  What if we recognized we need each other?  What if we could look past our selfish DESIRES, our efforts for gain and for superiority, our quick fixes where long solutions are necessary?  How would that change the way we treat refugees, asylum seekers? If the whole world got behind this idea, would there even be refugees?

The tension of equity, of reliance on community, are not felt exclusively on a grand scale.

We are seeing this tension play out in this community right now around the Covid Vaccine.

I have seen and heard much anger about who gets the vaccine and when, despite the fact that we agree that the more people who have it the better for all of us, and it is something anyone who wants it should inevitably have access to.  But at the moment, when I listen to people angry about the decision to increase supply to communities with a higher percentage Latinx population because it is taking away from others, I hear a community of golden calf worshippers, unable to see the bigger picture, impatient.

It is proven fact that immigrant communities have been more negatively affected by Covid, partially because they make up a larger percentage of the work force that could not work from home, partially because the lower economic status of those communities have more people living in closer proximity, and partially because the language barrier and distrust of government.  Major societal factors are at play here.  I spoke last week with 2 members of the Santa Barbara Foundation who wanted to know more about how we had been getting information out to our community about vaccinations, because they had heard word that CBB was going above and beyond to make sure their members knew about vaccination opportunities, and wanted to repeat those efforts in the Mixteca and latinX communities in our county.

I told them that we have an incredible team of volunteers helping get people signed up, but that we were limited to the people within our circle of communication. If only our circle of communication were wider, we could help more. After Charlottesville 4 years ago we started The Human Family Project because we knew we needed to be better connected with other communities.  And after Covid, we will continue that work because it is clear that the more connected we are, the more people we can help, and potentially the more lives we can save.

Whether the resource is vaccines, food, or a safe place to live, it is not us or them.  To love your neighbor is to know it is us and them.  We are all in this together.  I am made safer by your being vaccinated.

Rabbi Jack Reimer’s words in our prayerbook echo this sentiment.  We already have the resources to feed, to clothe, to shelter, the entire world, if we would only use them wisely, and with love.

To love one’s neighbor and the stranger are central components of the Torah’s message.  4 times in torah we read love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You have known suffering, so alleviate the suffering of others. As we approach Passover, where we re-live the exodus from Egypt, our escape from persecution, we should be mindful of those trying to do the same, and open to the radical possibility that we need them as much as they need us.

Shabbat Shalom.