Opening Doors for New Americans since 1882
Thank you again, honorees, for the wonderful work that you do, for the example you set, the support you provide and for creating the camaraderie that makes it an absolute joy to undertake the work of welcome together. If you are inspired by what you have heard, we couldn’t do our work, this work that is so critical in this time, without your financial support. So I shamelessly stand before you and ask you to give more – baskets are being brought around.
A former client of ours, Olga Livshin, writing an op-ed for Newsweek yesterday, said, “it’s not just about Jews. Each time a gun fires at a defenseless person in the name of white supremacy, it shoots holes at the idea of America as a haven.”
When we began planning this program, Pittsburgh was the most recent “never again” episode in our hearts and minds. It was a terrible tragedy that was made personal not only because it was an attack on our people and our history but also because of the gunman’s reference to our critical work of refugee and immigrant integration as a motivator for hate. What a bitter irony indeed, that the work that we do which is the greatest act of love – to welcome the stranger, to try to end suffering, to face down persecution – should cause a hatred in others so powerful that it would result in senseless murder.
In the months since, we have all tried to grapple with this hatred and have lived through several more “never agains” – New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Louisiana, California. Guns and fires, Muslims, Christians and Jews. What are the lessons? What phoenix rises from these ashes? How not to despair in the face of these tragedies?
About a month ago, I was asked to speak at a synagogue about our work. The audience was thoughtful and receptive. They asked good questions. As is true everywhere I speak, there were some in favor of continuing the work and some concerned, seeking to put the brakes on – expressing concerns about limited resources but also about integration. One man in particular expressed a concern about welcoming “too many” Muslims. He was quick to say that he had nothing against Muslims in general and was fine with a certain, limited number, but, he insisted, everywhere where the numbers of Muslims has grown to some significant number, there has been increased violence against Jews.
So here is the lesson - look around you. Where has there been increased violence against Jews where there has not also been increased violence against Muslims – and Christians – and people? We all bleed red. While circling the wagons, pointing fingers, increasing levels of security because of increased distrust are all natural in the face of hatred that results in death, they are not effective, ultimately, in preventing hatred that results in death. In fact, they increase it. It may be counterintuitive, but it’s what makes us human, in the face of hatred, to show love, to recognize that the biggest weapon we have to combat hatred and fear is love. A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian fleeing persecution by a government who wishes to stamp out Islam, Judiasm, Christianity who are shown love by a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian, suddenly have a new lens through which to view all that he or she has experienced. A revolutionary, fleeing persecution from a totalitarian government, who is shown compassion and given support by a democratic government has new political ideas to ponder. A woman, fleeing a society that treats her like property, to be abused and thrown away when finished, is empowered to re-invent herself as a three dimensional human being who can contribute.
Our clients are the Phoenix’ and our work supports their rebirth. When we recognize the broader meaning of the stories that we have heard tonight, we recognize the power and significance of welcoming the stranger. We understand, perhaps more than we ever have in the past, why it is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah. This is the season when Jews remember that we were once strangers too. The reference to the long ago journey from slavery to freedom serves as a reminder to Jews, in case we need it, that strangers are us and therefore worthy of our compassion. But I like to think that what we are doing tonight, what we have done for the last 137 years and what we hope to continue to do in perpetuity, is greater than treating others as ourselves. It is a mission to bring peace, ultimately to the world, by welcoming the world’s most vulnerable into our homes - regardless of religion, race, gender, sexuality or political belief - and into our hearts. Today, we are all Jews, we are all Muslims, we are all Christians. We are all dark-skinned, we are all women, we are all homosexual and we all seek freedom. We are all human and we will not fear one another. One person at a time, what we do together, is to provide hope in the face of despair and love in the face of hate.
We bow our heads in a moment of silence, for all who have been murdered in hatred, that we may mourn and then renew our vow to fight for love and with love . . .