In light of the recent targeted travel ban ordered by President Trump (and, as of now, blocked by the courts), stories of refugees and immigrants have been at the top of the news cycle. The stories of people coming into our country today, many of whom are fleeing harsh conditions at home, are familiar to Jewish Americans. It was not long ago, after all, that many of our collective Jewish grandparents or parents (or we ourselves) set off to America seeking a better or safer life.
In the spirit of supporting today’s refugees and immigrants, Rabbi Seth Goren (Repair the World’s Executive Director in Philadelphia) shared his grandfather’s remarkable refugee story, as well as the lessons we can take from remembering the words from Exodus 23: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Can you share your family’s refugee story?
My zeyda (pictured top, left), may his memory be a blessing, was born in Obodovka, a small town in Western Ukraine where his father owned a general store. When the Russian Civil War broke out, the local Ukrainian postman was no longer getting paid by the government and couldn’t afford to buy food for his family. “That’s OK,” said my great grandfather, “You have to eat. Take what you need, and pay me back when you can.” This arrangement enabled the postman and his family to survive the harsh winter of 1918-1919.
That spring, it was rumored that Cossacks, members of local militias, were coming through the area targeting Jews, so Zeyda’s father loaded his wife and children onto a wagon. They were heading out of town when they were intercepted by the postman. “Don’t go that way,” he said, “That’s the direction they’re coming from. Come with me. I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” For the next several days, Zeyda and his family heard men come into the building to ask if there were any Jews there, with the postman turning them away each time. When they emerged from their hiding place, all the Jews in the town were dead or had fled.
The family spent three years in Bucharest, Romania before they were able to come to the United States. While the family visa they secured allowed Zeyda, his parents, and most of his siblings to immigrate under the recently imposed quota system, it didn’t cover his oldest, married sister Rachel. She and her husband ultimately found refuge in Argentina, and Zeyda never saw her again.
After two weeks at sea eating nothing but herring and bread, Zeyda arrived in the US at the age of ten. I can’t imagine most Americans at the time would have considered him or any of the rest of his family as welcome, productive, or worthy of admittance. He graduated from high school seven years later, and went on to become a beloved neighborhood pharmacist, serving various communities in Philadelphia for over five decades. Thanks in part to the opportunities they were afforded in the United States, his and his siblings’ descendants have gone on to become doctors, dentists, lawyers, professors, teachers, researchers, therapists, businesspeople, and other professionals and contributors who have positively affected the lives of tens of thousands across the country and around the world.
What impact did your Zeyda’s story have on you growing up?
There were a number of lessons I took away from his story:
1. Kindness can be oblivious to race, religion, and ethnicity. And it should be.
2. If you can’t perform acts of lovingkindness and generosity out of a sense of religious obligation or because it’s the right thing to do, do them because you never know the way in which your actions may be repaid one day.
3. If you see the person who’s standing in front of you only through the lens of your own experiences and background, you’ll miss who they really are and what they have to offer.
4. If you see the person who’s standing in front of you only for what they are today, you’ll miss what they could be one day.
5. If you see only the person who’s standing in front of you, you’ll miss what their children and their children’s children might do and be.
6. Laws should help strengthen families and keep them together, not break them up and keep them apart.
Why are immigrant and refugee issues important to you personally today?
It’s almost cliched at this point, but the Torah demands 36 times that we welcome and care for the stranger, anchoring our responsibility in our communal experience in and Exodus from Egypt. In addition, Jewish narratives, including my own family’s, are filled with stories of immigration and fleeing oppression, war, and destruction. It’s easy for me to see the stories I was raised with reflected in people’s similar circumstances as they seek refuge and opportunity in the United States today.
Why are immigrant and refugee issues important to Repair the World’s work?
Among Repair’s principles for promoting service is following the lead of our community partners in setting priorities. A number of our partners work directly with immigrants and refugees, and have guided us in how we can be most effective in our efforts in this area.
Volunteering with refugees and immigrants also intersects with our core issue areas of food and education justice, as well as our broader organizational values of standing in solidarity with those experiencing oppression, marginalization, and discrimination, regardless of their immigration status. Finally, given the way in which this resonates for many Jews, there’s a strong interest in supporting immigrants and refugees in the Jewish community. Providing meaningful opportunities to serve and contextualizing that service with learning fit perfectly within Repair the World’s mission and work.