“I cannot think of a more striking example of the Exodus in our own day,” concluded Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Jerusalem-based IRAC, Israel’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. As part of our January Mission to Israel the Northern California Rabbis had assembled to hear an up-to-date briefing on the status of Women of the Wall. We got that – and so much more.
Ms. Hoffman’s comment referred to the hundreds of refugees who make the journey by foot each month from the Sudan, through Egypt and across the southern border into Israel. She told us that in exchange for a brand new pair of New Balance sneakers, a social worker had recently collected one man’s shoes. The shoes were then mounted and preserved in a museum-quality box frame for display and sent to congregation in the US that had donated a sizable sum to support IRACs legal and social work on behalf of asylum-seeking refugees in Israel.
For days after returning from the mission I was haunted by the story and wondered whether it would be even remotely possible to raise the thousands of dollars needed to secure such a remarkable pair of shoes. I wrote to Ms. Hoffman asking where I could learn more about the project and she responded immediately. “We have another pair that made the journey from Darfur, but we are having difficulty interviewing the shoes owner because he works from dawn to midnight every day. We are thinking of offering him a day’s work pay to come tell us his story and also receive a new pair.”
The impact of hearing this story powerful story was equal to that of seeing the Israeli neighborhood in which many of these refugees live. Our delegation visited BINA, a secular yeshiva in South Tel Aviv where students live and work with the most diverse of Israel’s ethnic populations. Our guide told us that refugees often find work as day laborers; yet their status remains precarious. As he introduced us to a volunteer-run, multi-lingual lending library they had set up in Levinsky Park, we witnessed one refugee taken into custody by a police officer. This is apparently not uncommon.
It is heart breaking to imagine risking everything to begin a new life in Israel only to land in prison and face deportation. Yet many refugees say that they’d rather die in Israel than to be deported back to Africa. Speaking on the refugees’ behalf one social activist remarked emphatically that, “The failure of other countries to treat refugees properly does not give us an excuse to do the same.” Refugees are unlike migrant workers in that they simply have no option other but to flee for their lives.
These comments reminded me of a scene in “Out of Sight,” a new play by actress and playwright Sara Felder. In it she recounts her mother’s inability to forgive herself for not speaking against the FDR government when it refused entry of the SS St. Louis into the port of Miami thereby sealing the terrible fate of hundreds of Jewish refugees. Yet, in every generation, many courageous individuals do step forward to save the innocent. For example, I recently learned of Nicholas Winton, a righteous gentile from Great Britain who helped 669 Jewish children escape Nazi Germany and who until recently had never told anyone about it! When a youth activist asked him his philosophy of life he stated, “Don’t be content…just to do no wrong. Be prepared everyday to try and do some good.”
At Pesach we recall the Exodus, the Holocaust and all historic persecutions of our people. But remembering history is not enough. To live “as if we had personally gone forth” requires that we name and respond to the Exoduses of our own time; to put ourselves in the shoes of those struggling right now to escape Pharaoh’s death-grip. This Pesach let us refuse to indulge feelings of powerlessness; let us not surrender to paralyzing indifference. Rather, let us courageously step forward together to fight all forms of tyranny and oppression in our day – for the sake of our generation and generations to come.