Upon hearing I am a rabbi people often ask, “Who is your congregation?” I respond that I have the privilege of serving the vulnerable. They are my congregation and the people I ultimately hold myself responsible to.
Being responsible to the vulnerable means our agency, which helps refugees adapt to America, must walk with our clients, even if it is uncomfortable at times. Lately, it has been uncomfortable. For many complicated reasons, we are at a time when serving the vulnerable has become politicized. Welcoming the stranger has never been as difficult.
And who is the refugee, if not the ultimate stranger? The one whose circumstance is so dire, so dangerous, so untenable, that the unknown of the exodus is the only viable option for survival.
Who are these refugees, these strangers? They are women and children and men. They are parents and grandparents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They are families torn apart, scattered across the globe. They are exiled, displaced, on the run, fighting for their lives.
As travel bans have been ordered, litigated, stayed, reissued and litigated again, I have received many emails and calls about our organization’s philosophy of refugee resettlement. The overwhelming majority have been supportive, but some now strongly disagree with our work in this area. Some critics challenge us for resettling people beyond the Jewish community.
For the most part, the communication has been respectful from people seeking greater understanding. Or wanting to share a different perspective. Continuing to invest in each other with open and honest dialogue is critical at this moment. Instead of walking away in judgement when we disagree, we need to turn toward each other, even when honesty might feel risky.
Our community must sit with that discomfort if we are to rebuild and strengthen our civil society. And because we are a Jewish social service agency our enduring belief in the values of civil society compels us to serve people beyond the margins of the Jewish community.
For us, these are timeless concerns that extend far beyond the latest headline or news cycle.
And we must never and will never abandon the vulnerable in our community out of fear or for self-preservation. Our mission and our work — reunifying families and opening our doors to men, women and children who face persecution and terror — are not political positions; they are moral imperatives.
So,we are resolved never to sacrifice our integrity out of fear. We are resolved to help our clients live out their highest aspirations - and help our community live out our highest values. To remain worthy of our communal stories - of the sacrifice of our ancestors.
This country has long been a light unto the nations by striving to fulfill our hopes and dreams, not by succumbing to our fears and suspicions. The eternal flame, like the Statue of Liberty, is a beacon that shines in multiple directions. Across time and space - both toward the sea and toward our shore. Just as it did for our ancestors.
We must always stay true to our history and our values - never hardening our hearts. As psychiatrist and wauthor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Being human means being conscious and being responsible.”
Our tradition and our experience command us to respond - and we take that command very seriously. We must stay true to who we have always been as a people, even through the discomfort. And this is never easy. But together, we must speak our truths and live our values, as individuals and as a community.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz is Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Family Service of Seattle. The agency was founded in 1892 to help immigrants, refugees and the poor.