Moe Levine, my paternal grandfather – my Saba – came to this country in 1931, when he was well into his 20s. He immigrated from Vilna, which was then part of Poland, in search of opportunity. He was not a refugee, exactly. The tidal-wave of anti-Semitism that would soon engulf Europe was nowhere near cresting, and the boat-load after boat-load of bona fide refugees fleeing Nazi Europe was, in ’31, a scene outside of anyone’s imagination. My grandfather was just one of millions, seeking better prospects in di goldene medineh – America, the golden land.
Saba came to New York. He moved around a little, spent some time in Chicago, and ended up in Gloversville, NY, doing what one did in Gloversville – making gloves. With the help of a cousin, he got a position learning the craft of “cutting,” and he became a skilled glove cutter, eventually moving back to the city, meeting my Savta (grandmother, Jeanne), settling in the Bronx, and opening up a glove-making shop. Business was fine. He never owned a home, but he drove a Mercedes. He and my Savta were able to save enough money that, after retirement, they could make Aliyah (to Ramat Gan, which lasted for a few years), and then come back to the united states and settle in Florida (the Oriole Golf and Tennis Club, Phase II, Margate). Saba never learned to speak English very well – he read the New York Post every day, but his spoken English was thickly accented and not particularly flowing. He also read the Yiddish papers – that was his first language. He and my Savta raised my father, giving him all the opportunities afforded by their adopted country (my grandmother came over when she was a baby), and now my grandfather’s great grandchildren are the beneficiaries of the chance that he took.
Most of us can recognize this story, if not in the details then certainly in the overall arc. Most of our families came to the United States from all over the world looking for a refuge, a chance, an escape. Many were looking for better prospects, if not for themselves, then for their children and their children’s children. And most of them were successful on that front. The story of America is, to a large degree, a story of immigrants and refugees, even from the very first pilgrims. These foreigners act out the story in their new land, and we, their American descendants, tell the story for generations after.
EMJC recently formed a social justice and action committee. Its members are united by a desire to translate their religion, their expression of “faith community,” into action – to “pray with their feet,” to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the coming weeks, you will be hearing about the Acosta-Molina family, refugees from Honduras who came to our notice through Debbie Nathan, a former EMJC member (who joined the committee at our meeting this past Monday night). Debbie is a journalist who moved to Texas and has been doing reporting on the refugee crisis at the border. She has some harrowing tales to tell of refugee life in the Trump/Steven Miller era, but she brought us a story of hope: Debbie and her husband Morten have been working with Misael and Katy and their two little girls, Nicol and Madaì, trying to get them to New York while they await an asylum hearing (this will take several years). The committee agreed to help with their resettlement, and in the coming weeks will be asking the congregation to welcome them to New York, helping out in whatever way we can. This opportunity fell into the committee’s lap, a small gift of tikkun olam that can, perhaps, pave the way for another family to be woven in to the American fabric. The Acosta-Molina family have suffered considerable trauma, both in the home country they fled and in the two years since they arrived at the US border, victims of deeply inhumane US government policies. While they are just one family of so many, they are the ones whom we have been afforded the opportunity to partner with as Misael and Katy seek a better life and better opportunities for their beautiful girls.
To many Americans in the 1930s, my grandfather was a number – he was a figure in a quota, a faceless digit. But of course, he was not a number; he was a man. He had skills, and gumption, and a sense of humor, and he built a life and a family and a business and contributed to his new country. This Shabbat, we will read about the machatzit haShekel – the ½ Shekel census tax that was to be paid by every Israelite over the age of twenty and used for the maintenance of the Tabernacle: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel (Exodus 30:15). As Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer of HIAS writes, “This teaches us that people are not just numbers to be counted but, rather, valuable human beings who have valuable contributions to make. Moreover, because the same contribution is expected of everyone regardless of financial ability, we learn that no human being is more valuable than another.”
Tomorrow, our service will be focused on the plight of refugees coming to America. The immigrant aid organization HIAS and the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) have partnered to designate this Shabbat as Refugee Shabbat and we will be participating by concentrating on that theme. I hope you’ll tune in. And as we all stay tuned for more news of Misael, Katy, Nicol, and Madaì, I hope we’ll all reflect on how we, the EMJC community, can make a real and meaningful difference in the path their lives might take.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,