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Why I'm Going to El Paso

07/27/2019 09:09:58 PM


Cantor Hollis Schachner

My grandparents and I were talking in their mid-century kitchy North Miami Beach living room when I got up the courage to ask them the question I'd long been wanting to put to them, but hadn't. I was afraid of what their answer might be. "Nana, Poppi, you were living in New York in the early 1940's, raising your family, building your business--what did you do about the news coming out of Europe?" Let me be clear--I adored my grandparents. They helped to raise me. The Yiddish-spiked banter, cuisine, and humor that infused the air of their home laid the cornerstone of my cultural Jewish identity. I never remember my Nana calling me by name, only "my nachas (happiness)." And yet I can't help but admit the truth about their answer: I was confused and saddened. I remain so today. They explained they didn't really know what was going on, that the news was spotty and inconsistent. I remember they said the war was good for business on the home front, a sorely needed boost to the economy that captured most of the attention of the day. I treasured my grandparents, and while this has never changed, it would be false to deny that a kind of chill came over me as I listened because, as I had feared, it did indeed color some of my assumptions about them. I don't love that part of myself. There is no doubt that they were good people who cared about the world, helped those in their sphere who were down on their luck, gave tzedakah, and made milestone gifts of Israel bonds. But I came away from that conversation uneasy. With all we know about the Shoah today, and with a degree of coverage by way of letters and pictures leaking out back then, I just didn't understand... they had to know something. To know even the tiniest fraction of something and not do anything... These last few weeks Jews, Israel, and the Holocaust have become pawns in the national conversational reckoning with our border crisis. I'm choosing not to leap into that fray on the level of words vs. words because I'm less concerned about semantic comparisons and far more concerned about actually doing something. Yet the truth keeps hitting me that cannot shake the memory of that conversation. Unlike my grandparents, I cannot offer the explanation that I really don't know what's happening. I cannot unsee the images or unhear the stories from our southern border that are reaching my eyes and ears every time I turn on the news or check the headlines. As the Jewish grandchild they helped raise me to be, I fear being put to a similar question decades from now by such justice-conscious grandchildren as I may, God-willing, be blessed to have one day. And the Judaism I practice calls me, insistently, to action. As a Jew I must hold myself bound by the mitzvah found in Leviticus 19:33-34: "When a stranger sojourns 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 the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God." As a Jewish American, I must hold myself bound by the patriotic obligation to hold my country to its own highest ideals. To the marrow of my bones I am proud and grateful for the safe haven of this Goldena Medina, which sheltered my great-grandparents from persecution and enabled the next generations of my family to thrive and contribute our own gifts to our nation's well-being. Each era of crisis has its own call to action, one that echoes down the decades as new challenges emerge. At the Religious Action Center's Consultation on Conscience a few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Eric K. Ward, the Executive Director of the Western States Center, speak about what motivates his tireless advocacy for policies that confront the scourges of White Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, racism, and poverty in our country. He said that he used to play a game in his own mind, asking himself something to the effect of "If I'd been alive during the Civil Rights era, what would I have done? Would I have marched, protested, joined the Freedom Riders, how would I have acted?" And then in these past months he realized that whatever he would have done had he lived back then is exactly what he needs to do when he walks out the front door today, because the stakes are just as high. But I've been asking myself over and over, what exactly is it that I can do in this era of crisis? I am civically engaged and still feel powerless. I wrestle with anger and impotence, with urgency and a flailing sense of hopelessness. I am not a lawyer. I am still just beginning to learn what it means to be a social justice activist in this fractured world. That's why, as a person of faith who is entrusted with a position of leadership, I felt the relief of clarity when I heard there was a call for clergy to join together in El Paso on July 28th. This is something I can and must do. It is the intersection of my faith, my civic duty, and my strong belief in justice. Next week I will be joining Repairers of the Breach in a "Moral Monday" gathering at the Borderlands. Led by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, I will be standing in partnership with religious leaders from across the country, including the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and many other Jewish, Christian and Muslim clery members in solidarity, to defend our civil and moral values. The "Moral Monday at the Borderlands" call to action says: From our holy scriptures to the foundational values in our religious traditions, it is clear: God mandates we protect children and shelter strangers. The 14th Amendment, born in the ashes of a bloody civil war, declares "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Equal Protection Clause explicitly extends protections to "any person," not "any citizen." Yet, refugees seeking asylum are living in detention camps that shame our nation...As people of conscience and leaders from faith traditions proclaiming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we cannot stand for this desecration in the name of our country and in violation of our Constitution. One of the things I have come to know and love about our Shir Tikva family is that we are all people of conscience. And so many of you have proven that you don't need to be up here on the bimah to be true leaders. As I prepare to embark on my journey, I urge you to take your own, to find your authentic means for pushing back against your own feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. For the time being there is unfortunately still plenty of injustice to go around, so gravitate to a cause and get involved, use your voice, contact your lawmakers or march to assert that all people were created Betzelem Elohim, in God's image, and deserve no less than to be treated as such. The "Moral Monday" call to action concludes: This is not a matter of Republican or Democrat, left or right. This is about the deep moral center and the very soul of our nation. Our sacred texts are clear. Our traditions speak loudly. The ancestors are about our shoulders. As a fourth-generation Jewish American, the story of my ancestors arriving here is a precious inheritance. I was told that as my grandparents' parents sailed into the safe embrace of freedom their first view of this new land of theirs was Lady Liberty, whose pedestal bore these words by the Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" For me, for my family, for all those tempest-tost breathing free on this side of the golden door, these words are American sacred liturgy. I will be praying them with all my heart and soul, as well as with my feet, in El Paso.

Thu, April 15 2021 3 Iyar 5781