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Refugee Shabbat: A Call for Justice in Our Time

This Shabbat we delve into Parashat Yitro, a pivotal moment in our history when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Although this is a momentous chapter in the story of the Jewish people, the parashah is interestingly not given a title that references the receipt of the Torah, but rather is named after Yitro, or Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, for the crucial guidance he offers on the leadership and future of the Jewish people. 

Since the Exodus from Egypt, Moses has been the sole mediator and magistrate of the people, burdened with resolving every dispute and interpreting the law for the people. Jethro, observing the toll this takes on both Moses and the community, advises Moses to delegate tasks to capable individuals who will seek his counsel only in the most difficult cases. He emphasizes that wisdom is not confined to one nation and that the pursuit of justice is a collective job. Heeding this counsel, Moses establishes a more inclusive justice system, wherein shared responsibility enhances the society as a whole. More people are involved and invested, and the community’s administration of law and justice is expanded. By juxtaposing the story of Yitro with the events of Mount Sinai, the Torah suggests to us that this transformation of the justice system was so essential that it was a prerequisite for the revelation of the Torah, one of the most significant events in the Jewish tradition.

This Shabbat, we observe HIAS’ annual Refugee Shabbat, an opportune moment for us to pause, acknowledge, and reflect on the pursuit of immigration justice. As Jews, our freedom from Egypt carries the responsibility of embracing radical accountability for our fellow human beings, a charge which our ancestors eagerly accepted. 

Since I wrote to this community last year on Refugee Shabbat, we have seen the number of newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees increase profoundly, with over 150,000 individuals arriving in New York City in 2023. These families—our new neighbors—traveled thousands of miles to get here, fleeing state-sponsored brutality, extortion, and poverty with little more than the clothes on their backs, in order to request asylum in the United States.  

Seeking asylum is a legal right under United States and international laws, and those arriving in our city are entitled to protection and respect. However, the asylum process takes months, even years, leaving asylum seekers in a state of uncertainty legally, financially and emotionally. And at the same time, New York City is trying to deter asylum seekers from arriving in the first place, as well as denying the legal right to shelter to newly arrived asylum seekers. These policies that deter, block, and punish individuals seeking safety alienate them from any semblance of justice.

I recently visited a NYC public school whose student population had almost doubled in size with the recent influx of asylum seekers in their district. The principal shared a story about a young girl who arrived very dressed up for class one day because, the child shared in tears, it was her last day in the school. Her family was being forced to leave New York City and resettle in another state. The city’s disruptive policies affect children and families like hers every day, requiring migrants to leave their shelters after just a couple months, and then return to a processing center, only to be reassigned to a completely different shelter or encouraged to accept a one-way ticket out of New York. Just as migrants begin to find their way in their new surroundings, they are forced to uproot their routines and undermine any stability they may have established—further alienating them and diminishing their access to justice.

Like many in our community, I am the descendent of individuals who arrived in New York through the legal refugee or asylum process. Our Jewish ancestors fled pogroms, conscription in the czar’s army, state-sanctioned violence, concentration camps, discrimination, and lack of opportunity. They dreamed of better conditions, of the streets of America being “paved with gold.” The Jewish population of New York swelled from 80,000 in 1880 to 1.5 million in 1920. So many of us are New Yorkers today because of our ancestors’ journeys; today’s asylum seekers merit access to the same justice, opportunity, stability, and safety from which we all benefit. 

Together, as a community, let us draw on the lessons of Jethro and Moses, and reaffirm our commitment to shared accountability of justice for our fellow human beings. We all have a role to play in ensuring justice is pursued; we cannot assume someone else will take up the charge. There are a number of ways you can volunteer your time and lend your voice to welcome and protect those seeking refuge, honoring the teachings of our tradition and contributing to a world rooted in justice and compassion. I hope you will join me in this endeavor.


Shabbat Shalom,