Tag Archives: Refugees

Standing Up to Hardened Hearts

This article was originally published on January 30th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I spent last Sunday with the new Syrian family that our community helped resettle in New Jersey. Along with my rabbinic colleagues, we spent time with the family that Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation helped to resettle. The family has asked that we do not use their names out of fear of retribution to family members still in Syria. During our conversation together, it was clear how grateful they were to be here, and how much emotional baggage they carried with them. They came with just a few suitcases. Our community graciously and lovingly donated clothing, houseware, and furniture to furnish their new home that we found for them. But all they brought with them, all they had left of their lives, was a few suitcases. Their children are beginning school in the local elementary and high school in the coming days and their oldest child is committed to being fluent in English as quickly as possible so that she could enroll in a university soon.

They arrived at Newark International Airport days before President Trump’s inauguration, and days later, I can’t help but think how lucky they are that they arrived when they did. If they were delayed and arrived any later, they wouldn’t have been allowed in this country, a consequence of the President’s discriminatory executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, temporarily freezes the US refugee program entirely, and bans all Syrian refugees from entering the United States going forward.

As a rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, this xenophobic policy is deeply troubling to me. In June 1939 the St. Louis was turned away and not allowed to anchor in the United States, out of fear that the German Jews on board were actually Nazi spies.More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Statistics from 1938 show that the vast majority of Americans weren’t willing to allow German or Austrian refugees into the country. On January 27th, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and made the commitment of ‘Never Again.’ The promise of ‘Never Again’ means that never again will be turn away refugees, sending them off to be slaughtered. Never again will we be apathetic towards millions who are just seeking safety under God’s sheltering presence. And yet, we find ourselves at this crossroads, where the government has seemed to ignore this commitment of ‘Never Again,’ specifically singling out refugees because of their ethnicity and faith.

My congregation joined the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees a year and a half ago and joined HIAS’ list of Welcoming Congregations this past spring. We, along with the other synagogues in the area, joined withChurch World Service to resettle refugees because we were determined to not just talk the talk – to not just sign on to a statement or add our names to a petition – but to walk the walk. And now in light of this discriminatory executive action, we are left asking ourselves: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Who do we want to be?


Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz & Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Newark International Airport

On Saturday night, I joined hundreds at Newark International Airport, among them congregants and rabbinic colleagues, to protest these discriminatory executive orders and demand that refugees and immigrants be allowed to enter this country. I cannot be silent. I refuse to be silent. We must continue to take action, even when we feel hopeless – and especially when we feel hopeless – to fight for what we believe is right.


This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, a continuation of the exodus narrative, in which God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed. God begins with a promise, looking into the future, focusing on the destination of the journey ahead:

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you for the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Ex. 6:5-6).

This initial promise sounds pretty good. Those who have suffered will be given a new opportunity to begin again. Yet, as God explains to Moses that he will be the leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron will be his voice, the Lord threw a wrench into this supposed promise:

You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:2-3).

This always baffled me. Why would an Omnipotent God intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why wouldn’t God just free the Israelites at that moment? One would think that after finally hearing their cries of four hundred years of servitude, God would immediately take them out of slavery. The rabbis are equally concerned with this and try to rationalize Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

Midrash Lekach Tov blames the Israelites, suggesting that after being enslaved for so long, they weren’t ready to be free. They needed to witness God’s miracles to understand that freedom was actually a possibility for them. Rashi teaches that at that moment, if Pharaoh was to repent, it would be inauthentic. He couldn’t have experienced wholehearted teshuvah, so his heart was hardened. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh needed to be punished for his actions. Pharaoh needed to suffer from these plagues as a revenge of sorts. But none of this explains why God preemptively warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. Why does God reveal the plot twist before it even happens? Because ultimately, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh; it was about Moses.

Moses may have been a hesitant leader due to his fear of speaking in public, his “uncircumcised lips,” but his belief in helping the Israelites was never in doubt. He risked his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace to prevent a taskmaster from beating a slave! This was a cause that he cared about from an early age. But what would happen when he got to that first road block? What would happen when the door was slammed in his face? Would he return to Midian as a shepherd and ignore the hardships of the Hebrews? Or would he continue to bang on Pharaoh’s door, until he banged the door down, demanding ‘Let My People Go’?

God wanted to make sure that Moses was in this for the long haul, because if he cared enough about this cause, then he needed to be in it for the long haul. It would’ve been easy to get frustrated, pack up, and go home. The path to justice isn’t straight, but that doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing it. Moses knew that time and time again he would demand the Israelites’ freedom and would be turned away, but he kept coming back. He refused to give up. He knew what he stood for was right and wasn’t going to let the hardened heart of an authoritarian get in his way.

So now, at this point in history, we ask ourselves where do we go from here? Who do we want to be? We are the descendants of refugees who came to this country seeking safe haven. Many of us are refugees ourselves. We are a people who are taught to welcome the stranger, a commandment found in the Torah more times than any other commandment. So who do we want to be? After signing on to statements and petitions and even resettling refugees, do we move on in the face of bigoted policies? Do we continue to complain to our friends in our own echo chambers, posting on social media to those who already share our views? Do we give up and return to Midian, defeated with our heads hanging in shame? Or do we do what Moses did, keep banging on Pharaoh’s door, fighting for what is right?

Who do we want to be?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fulfilling God’s Promise of Protection

Just a few weeks ago, as we read Parashat Vayetze, I couldn’t help but feel that the words of Torah were speaking directly to what is going on in the world around us. The Torah portion begins with Vayetze –  and he left –  telling the story of Jacob on the run, fleeing, concerned about his own safety and security. The narrative even concludes with Jacob on the run again, fleeing once more, even if the imminent danger is unclear. The parasha focuses on our patriarch Jacob wandering without a place to call home, without a place where he is welcomed in.

These words hit close to home as our country and society continues to grapple with welcoming in Syrian refugees. Welcoming in the most vulnerable is a key element of who we are as Jews – and should be a key element of who we are as human beings. We do not abandon the most vulnerable. We promise to be with them when they need us most.

When a wandering Jacob sees God’s divine messengers in his dream, angels ascending and descending staircases, Jacob is comforted by hearing God’s promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go… (Gen. 28:15).

Our obligation, as we strive to walk in God’s ways, and also be God’s messengers, is to be there for those who need us most. We cannot turn our backs on them. I read a disturbing poll in the Washington Post recently. The poll stated that over two-thirds of Americans, more than 67%, believe that we should try to keep refugees out of this country. Those numbers are disturbing in their own right. However, chills ran down my spine as I realized that this poll wasn’t taken in December 2015 and wasn’t referring to the millions of Syrian refugees who are desperately seeking asylum. Rather, this poll was taken in July 1938, and was referring to refugees from Germany and Austria fleeing the Nazis.


This poll was referring to many of our ancestors being turned away as they sought freedom and safety in this country. What worries me is our refusal, both then and now, to fulfill God’s promise to be “with you” and “protect you wherever you go.”

Refugees are fleeing from terror, not perpetrators of terror. I understand the fear of ISIS – a real threat in the world, but we cannot turn our backs on millions of refugees. We cannot turn our backs, in the same way that so many turn their backs on our ancestors trying to come to this country decades ago. We cannot ignore the stranger. We must love the stranger. We must embrace the stranger. For we were once strangers.

I am deeply troubled by the recent news that many governors, including Governor Christie of New Jersey, have publicly stated that they wouldn’t welcome refugees into their states. I decided to write Governor Christie and urge him, based on the teachings of so many faith traditions, to reconsider his positions. Rabbis began to sign on to this letter, and before I knew it, over 100 members of the clergy, all residents of New Jersey, from many faith traditions and religious backgrounds, signed on to the letter as well.

While we await a response from the Governor, I – and my community – continues to commit to doing our part to welcome in the stranger. I refuse to ignore the most vulnerable. May we uphold God’s promise of protection to those who need it most.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The full text of the letter can be found here:






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A Safe Haven for All

At the height of the Nike Live Strong yellow bracelet craze, every organization was selling every possible colored rubber bracelet, representing a diverse spectrum of causes. For about four or five years or so, I wore a green bracelet, never taking it off, as a subtle way to take a stand on a larger issue. From about 2003 or so until 2008, I wore a green bracelet made and sold by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) that had embossed on it two simple words: Save Darfur.

Save Darfur. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, was – and still is – consumed by violence and genocide. Since early 2003, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, the militias that they armed, were conducting a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur. They focused on ethnic cleansing, murdering close to half a million people, and displacing another 2 million people. Even when a peace agreement was signed in 2006, it was clear that the Sudanese government had escalated its campaign to terrorize and kill civilians, to rape women and young girls, and to burn villages and drive innocent people from their homes.

SaveDarfurBraceletTwo words — Save Darfur — were embossed on my wrist. Why? With two other words, Never Again, engrained in the collective memory of our people, it’s our obligation to make sure genocide no longer happens. We do not only stand up to prevent genocide against our people, to prevent a second Holocaust, but we stand up to put an end to ethnic cleansing, no matter the corner of the world. To me, the words Save Darfur meant the same as Never Again.

The establishment of the Modern State of Israel made the promise of “Never Again” a reality. Israel was to be a safe haven, a place where individuals didn’t have to worry about being abused, imprisoned, raped, or murdered simply because of who they were.

World Jewry, and more specifically, the American Jewish Community with AJWS at the forefront, sought to end to the violence in the Sudan. So, it is only appropriate that the Jewish community doesn’t just fight to end genocide, but ensures the continued safety of those impacted by such genocide.

In 2010, thousands of Sudanese refugees began entering Israel illegally, trekking by foot for weeks from Sudan through Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel seeking political asylum. Sudan’s neighboring Eritrea is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders and thousands of refugees came from this neighboring nation as well, also seeking political asylum.

Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator for Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that there are over 54,000 African asylum seekers in Israel from this region. Israel has not granted a single one of them asylum, with many in the government claiming that they are simply “work infiltrators” in Israel not for interested in their own safety, but only to improve their quality of life.

Last week, Israel witnessed a dramatic demonstration staged by refugees. 150 Sudanese men AfricanRefugeesProtestwho had been incarcerated in an immigration prison in Southern Israel – some for as long as two years – marched for three days along with twenty or so human rights workers to the Israeli government compound in Jerusalem. With handmade signs written in Hebrew and English, they marched, chanting “No More Prison. Refugees’ rights right now!” They were marching for freedom.

Israeli border police eventually intervened, forming a human barricade around the group, forcing them back into busses waiting to drive them back to the cold cells in southern Israel. Following the illegal immigration of these asylum seekers years ago, Israel built a $400 million security fence at its southern border. Still, not knowing how to deal with these 50,000 asylum seekers, a new Anti-Infiltration Law was passed by Knesset which transfers these refugees to an “open air” prison, which essentially means that they are still locked up, but they can walk around outside while they’re locked up. Even more worrisome about this new law is the fact that it permits government to incarcerate refugees seeking asylum indefinitely.

Following the protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a brief three sentence statement: referring to these asylum seekers as work infiltrators and calmly explained that they are welcome to remain locked up in this immigration prison or return to genocide in their home countries. We promised to Save Darfur. We declared Never Again. And yet, these 50,000 refugees are left with a choice of incarceration or genocide.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, and were reminded of what it feels like to be imprisoned,reminded of what it feels like to be enslaved. Stuck in the 400 year old reality of slavery in Egypt, we refused to remain incarcerated by Pharaoh any longer. Moses, along with Aaron, come to Pharaoh demanding freedom for the Israelites and when Pharaoh refuses, God brings upon the Egyptians the first seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail. And with each time, with each hardship, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. Still, time and time again, Moses and Aaron, continue to demand that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves.

Exodus 7:1 reveals the Divine nature of fighting for an individuals freedom:

Vayomer Adonai El Moshe Re’eh N’ta’ticha Elohim l’faroh v’aharon achi’cha yihye n’viecha.

God said to Moses: See that I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.

God’s statement confirms the Divine nature of standing up for freedom and justice. When one stands up and says “Let my people go” he or she is not speaking his own words, he’s not just speaking for himself; he is speaking for God. He is doing God’s will. When one demands justice and freedom, one speaks for God. Moses’ cry for freedom was God’s cry for freedom. Aaron’s prophetic voice spread God’s call for freedom.

Every time an African refugee asylum seeker is brave enough to stand up for his own justice the same is true. His cry for freedom is God’s cry for freedom. His call for justice is a prophetic call for justice.

We know eventually what happens in our narrative, beginning this Shabbat as we read Parashat Bo: locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn, splitting of the sea, freedom. And once the Jewish people, the Israelites, are freed, God reminds us in Exodus 22:20, that we should not oppress the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We should not incarcerate, imprison, or enslave, for we were once incarcerated, imprisoned, and enslaved. We need to continue to be the prophetic voice, to place ourselves in the role of God – to do God’s Divine work in this world.

After these brave souls marched from Southern Israel to Jerusalem demanding freedom and asylum last week, I looked through my things, trying to find that green Save Darfur bracelet. I couldn’t find it. But the message of those two words remains true. We aren’t seeking to just save the region, we are seeking to save the lives of the people of the region. That does not mean imprisoning them, that means allowing our safe haven to be their safe haven. Such an act is a public statement and a fulfillment of a promise, so that when we say “Never Again,” we mean it.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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