“To immigrate is to experience a chasm” – Reflections of a Rabbi

Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block

Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block

Feet in 2 Worlds invited several faith leaders to join a written round-table in response to the following question:

Many immigrants speak of how faith and religion have helped them deal with the challenges of leaving their homeland and establishing a new life in the U.S.  But religion is also a way for some people to categorize, stereotype or discriminate against immigrants.  How do religious leaders who come from and serve immigrant communities meet the spiritual needs of the faithful and at the same time help members of their faith navigate the tensions between stigma and the embrace of a new American identity?

Here is the response from Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block

Every Jew has an immigration story.  It is often about our own migration, or our parents’ or grandparents’.  When Jews speak with each other and discuss family history we often say “what country is your family from?  And where were they from before that?” This is partly due to the destruction and upheaval of Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the twentieth century.  In a broader sense, migration is at the heart of the origins of the Jewish people and our subsequent history:  from Abraham’s call to “Go forth from your native land” to the exodus from Egypt.

The following are some voices of Jewish immigrants to America, in their own words:

From Anzia Yezierska in 1920:

“America is a home for everybody…Everybody is with everybody alike, in America.  Christians and Jews are brothers together. An end to the worry for bread… Everybody can do what he wants with his life in America…’Land! Land!’ came the joyous shout. . . All crowded and pushed on deck. They strained and stretched to get the first glimpse of the ‘golden country’. . . I looked about the narrow streets of squeezed-in stores and houses, ragged clothes, dirty bedding oozing out of the windows, ash-cans and garbage-cans cluttering the side-walks.  A vague sadness pressed down my heart—the first doubt of America. ‘Where are the green fields and open spaces in America?’ cried my heart.  ‘Where is the golden country of my dreams?’”

And from Farideh Goldin in 2004:

“When I finally left Iran in that summer of 1976, I wanted to distance myself from my culture, my society and even my extended family….The 1979 Islamic Revolution changed all that for me.  Now most family members who had never stepped foot out of our southern birthplace of Shiraz, those who never dreamed of leaving…have come to the United States…For me, America had been a naïve utopian dream, and at least for a while a refuge, a deliberate escape from all that was familiar. Many Iranians considered the move a hardship for the sake of a better future for their children, a forced exile into an alien culture, banishment to a country that didn’t feel like home, unlike Iran that had been familiar even if hostile. . .”

To immigrate is to experience a chasm: sometimes the chasm is between vision and reality; sometimes the chasm between a person and her family. For many contemporary American Jews the chasm is across generations. The spiritual and ethical challenge is to understand that our treasured family stories and experiences are eerily similar to experiences of our non-Jewish neighbors and community-members whose families have immigrated more recently; and to know that the fight for an America that is truly welcoming and open to its newest arrivals is ongoing and must be renewed in each and every generation.

Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block is Rabbi-in-Residence and Deputy Director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.

 

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