Throughout the year, in every worship service, in every Kiddush, sanctification of holy time, we thank God for freeing us as a people from Egypt, where we were despised and oppressed strangers. Throughout the Torah God teaches us to learn from our Egypt, Mitzrayim, our narrow straits, the obligation to prevent and alleviate such narrow straits for the strangers and downtrodden among us. Who is the stranger? The one we didn’t grow up with. The one of a different color, a different accent, different dress, different traditions.
Rabbi Akiva said the essence of Torah, the distillation of its teachings is “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which is found in the book of Leviticus 19:18. Hillel the Sage understood it to go beyond love to behavior when he formulated Torah’s essence as “What is hateful to you do not do to your peer.” Tonight, and at every Passover seder our task is to take the combination of these teachings and remember to apply them to that stranger, as we are taught in Leviticus 19:33-34,
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I Adonai am your God.
As Jews we are used to being that stranger in a strange land. As Americans we know that we are not native to the land we live in. We are all immigrants.
When I learned that immigrants were being detained in the jail three miles from my home in Woodstock, Illinois, I felt that I needed to join the interfaith ministry to alleviate their isolation and degradation. That was two and a half years ago. What is the difference between Eduardo whom I talked with at the jail on Tuesday and myself? As he stated to me—a piece of paper! The lack of a piece of paper ripped him from his place of employment as a cook in a small town in Wisconsin, where he has lived for ten years. The lack of a piece of paper separated him from his three year old son. If he does not win the appeal of his deportation order, that separation will be permanent. So even though he has been detained for six months already, he will stay incarcerated another three months on the chance that he will be reunited with his child.
Tuesday I also met with Raymundo, who traveled to Illinois from Mexico when he was 18, fifteen years ago. For twelve years he has worked for the same employer, he married and has raised two daughters. Last year when he was arrested for driving under the influence, he paid the fine that was exacted and he went to the counseling sessions that were mandated, and he became more responsible about alcohol. Monday, because of that DUI for which he endured the consequences and learned from his mistake, two agents came to his place of employment to detain him for consideration for deportation. Luis is one of the “fortunate” ones—he was given a bond, and a bond his family can afford, so hopefully, as we sit here tonight, he is back with his family with the long judicial maze ahead of them, but together, not separated by bars and bureaucracy.
And I spoke with Ahmad—we have become fast friends over the year he has been in immigration detention. He is about 20 years old. Originally from Somalia, he and his fiancée Delo first fled to Yemen, to escape violence and famine. When they arrived at O’Hare from Yemen, they were immediately taken into immigration custody. Delo, 18 years old, knew no English and only enough Arabic for prayers. Other women in her block comforted her, and her roommate Wanda, who has since been deported to Poland, began to teach her English. I brought them a Somali/English phrase book for tourists that I found at a bookstore. Delo expressed her desire to get an education, and her vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds. She was finally released from detention several months ago, as our government does not deport people to Somalia, and is living with a Somali family in Chicago. Ahmad initially was considered a terrorism risk but it looks like he will finally be released next month. During the past year, the only time he has been outside has been to go to court, as the jail is not built for long term residency and has no yard. Several months ago he complained that there was no ESL class in the jail, and I advised him to pick up any English book and read for a half hour a day, and his English would improve. He keeps himself busy working on the paint crew in the jail for a dollar a day and reading.
Immigrant detainees thank us every week for spending dignified time with them, for recognizing them as valuable human beings and thus validating their lives. They have changed us as well. The jail has given training to its personnel concerning the non-criminal nature of these 300 detainees. Cognizant of the long term residency of detainees and other inmates, the jail in conjunction with the local community college will start ESL classes in June. I became aware this week of how these visits with the stranger have changed me. Sunday night I took the last train from Chicago home to Woodstock. Just before my stop another passenger woke up and asked where we were. He had long missed his stop at Arlington Heights and became quietly frantic. His cellphone had died. He asked to borrow my phone to call someone at home in Wheeling, but they could not come. He wanted his brother to call another friend to get the number of a third friend who could come pick him up. Meanwhile, I realized, he would have to wait outside at the train station in 45 degree weather in his shirt sleeves. Speaking of his shirt sleeves, his arms were totally tattooed, isn’t that called a sleeve? He had pegs in his ears and his cap was on backwards. Previously I might have not given him another glance or shrugged off his troubles or his very existence. But since my months of spending face to face time with individuals with tattoos around their necks, covering their arms, on their faces, talking about issues fundamental to us all—family, freedom, foolish mistakes that lead to horrid consequences--all I saw was a distressed human being who needed assistance, and I invited him to walk the two blocks to my home and sit in a warm place waiting for his phone to charge enough to retrieve the phone number of his friend who would come get him. We drank tea and ate girl scout cookies and chatted about this and that for the next hour and then we said goodbye.
So I ask you all to reflect on what you can do to see the stranger as a human being formed in the image of God. What can you do to stop the abuse of the stranger occurring in your very backyard? What can you do to love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?
One thing you can do is to make use of our toolkit for doing outreach to immigrants in detention. Don’t be a stranger!
Rabbi Maralee Gordon – Freedom & Justice Seder 2012