What a Sukkah Can Teach Us About the Refugee Crisis...Or Why Jews Must Welcome the Stranger, the Muslim Immigrant
By: Abby Holtzman
Abby is from West Newton, MA and graduated from Swarthmore College in PA in 2016 with a degree in psychology and English. This year Abby is working as an Associate Producer at Interfaith Voices, a public radio show about religion run by Loretto Sister Maureen Fiedler in Washington, DC. She is a member of IfNotNow, a movement grounded in the values of the Jewish tradition and dedicated to ending American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In 1939, Ruth Kurschner and her mother came to the United States on one of the last boats of Jewish refugees allowed into the country. She was four. Because of the United States’ quotas on immigrants from certain countries, her Polish father had to stay behind, and her mother couldn’t take care of her alone. Ruth ended up living at the Shield of David Home for Orphans, a Jewish charity, in New York City. Fifty years later, Ruth’s daughter married my uncle Jim.
A few Passover seders later, Ruth was telling her story and said she couldn’t remember - was the orphanage in Brooklyn or the Bronx? My great aunt piped up.
“It was in the Bronx,” she said.
How did she know that? Because it turns out that my great-grandmother had worked there. And my grandfather had grown up going to the birthday parties of all of the young girls. So Ruth’s daughter had ended up marrying into the family that had helped save her mother’s life.
Today, we all sit around and eat matzoh ball soup together on Passover and the Jewish New Year and Thanksgiving. We eat matzoh ball soup whenever possible.
There are a few lessons here. First, I guess we all do know each other. It's a small Jewish world. Second, in the Torah it's written, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In fact, the commandment to welcome the stranger is written over and over and over again in the Torah - more times than any other commandment. However, many of us have forgotten the true meaning of these words.
In my family and our story, there is both privilege and need and it's all mixed up together. My family would not exist as it does today if some of us had not been strangers, and if others had not seen this and extended welcome. It was the coming together of strangers that made my family.
What is the opposite of a stranger? I thought about this question for a long time, and I believe the answer must be family. It’s funny then that my family, and yours, only exist because of strangers and their crazy capacity to learn to love each other.
The Jewish ritual of building a sukkah comes to mind today, as refugees and immigrants are painted more and more as strangers, dangerous and apart. A sukkah is a booth that Jews build once a year and sleep in for several nights. Its original function was to shelter farmers who didn’t want to waste time traveling back to their homes after working in the fields. Instead, they stayed in these structures during harvest time.
A sukkah often has at least one open side, and the roof must be thatched with something that grew from the ground - thick enough to protect us from the sun, but sparse enough so we can see the stars. The whole point of the sukkah, to me, is that it’s permeable. It’s open to the world and to the stranger. These are not bomb shelters - they are fragile and temporary and sway in a strong wind.
The sukkah is supposed to remind us that we are still strangers, still wandering, and that we still long for the permanency of the Promised Land. We are all mortal, all passing through. We build the sukkah at the very end of the harvest season. We have just experienced plenty, and we are looking ahead to winter, a time of some scarcity. The sukkah reminds us of the great cycles of our lives: we have a lot, and then we have less, we are strangers one day but not the next.
The problem, though, is this idea of scarcity. Lack and death are natural parts of the cycle of life. But the Jewish people have historically experienced these forces in unnatural, inhuman ways. Many of us have been so scarred by scarcity, and the memory of it looms so huge, that we tell ourselves this story:
We were once strangers in a strange land, we once did not have enough, so from now on, we must get stronger and stronger and build bigger and bigger walls so no one can ever hurt us again.
This is the story of the modern state of Israel, and of the military occupation of Palestine. There's real trauma here, and real love, although it's directed inwards, not outwards. The circle is drawn close and tight. Quickly, everyone outside the circle becomes a stranger, and we make no room for them at the table, afraid that if we do, there will be nothing left for us.
As a Jew, I want to tell a different story, one where our history as strangers compels us to love the strangers of today. I want us to tell a story of expansiveness and mercy and the reaching out to those we have in fact made the stranger, through colonialism and violence and Islamophobia and the misunderstanding of the lessons of our own history. I believe that both Israel and the United States must learn this new story.
I believe that we are strong enough, as a Jewish people and as the United States of America, to both remember ourselves as strangers and to acknowledge, when we find ourselves with a shelter over our own heads, that we now have shelter to spare. We can hold these two truths together.
For though we all have our turn as strangers in a strange land, as a white Jew, this strange land has opened itself to me and my family, and in that, there is privilege and power. Therefore, I vow to fight for the strangers of today: all immigrants and refugees, and Muslims and those from the majority Muslim countries who are being explicitly targeted.
In the Sabbath prayers that many Jews say, we ask to be covered by a canopy of peace, sukkat shlomecha. When I sing these words, I always imagine a giant, beautiful sukkah made of clouds or the softest leafy branches in the world. However, a physical sukkah is not supposed to provide perfect peace or shelter. It’s too human, made by hands. It’s too of this world, made of things that grew in the earth.
Maybe, though, when we look through the sukkah to the stars, we’re supposed to feel a different kind of broader, divine protection. This kind of sukkah is the love and safety we tap into when we offer the stranger what we have.
We as humans can't ever offer each other perfect shelter. But, as Jews and as Americans, let’s remember that although our own shelter might feel fragile and fairly new, we absolutely can and must share it. We have to trust that through this act of faith, a new family will grow.
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