Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome
Since 1903, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, has been affixed to the base of Lady Liberty who stands proud and strong in the waters not far from our homes. She is the aspiration of our beloved country and symbolizes the promise of finding a home for all those displaced, tired and poor. Last Thursday, 27 BJ eighth and ninth graders, four BJ educators, and I traveled to Arizona to study issues of immigration with Tzedek America. Throughout the four-day trip, our BJ teens offered their own versions of this iconic poem. You can read them here.
That mighty woman on our shore stands in profound contrast to the wall that divides the two cities of Nogales, one in Mexico and one in the United States. Far from welcoming, it closely resembles the wrought iron gates around the maximum security prison that I visited for almost 15 years, barbed wire crawling like ivy along its edges.
We met John, a Jewish ICE agent, who believes in the wall and all it represents: the dividing line between legal and illegal, and the necessary accountability when a person crosses that line. We met Chris, a longtime border control agent, who retired after he became disillusioned with the militarization of the border and the lawlessness perpetrated in its name. We met Eddie, a DACA recipient and community organizer for immigrant justice, who was carried on the back of his mother as a toddler for 14 days on the walk from Southern Mexico. We met Josephina and Eva, who walked over the border as children and now as adults live in the shadows because they are undocumented. Both have spent significant time living in detention centers for lack of papers—but not for lack of trying to get them. Their children and grandchildren are all citizens because they were born in the US. We met Alma Hernandez, a 26-year-old Jewish Latinx Arizona state representative from Nogales, whose family lives on both sides of the border—some family members from Mexico were unable to cross over when her grandmother was dying. We met Liliana, a lawyer for the Florence project, who represents unaccompanied minors crossing the border. We met Ellen and Rick of the Tucson Samaritans, people of faith and conscience who are responding to the crisis at the border by providing emergency medical assistance, food, and water to people crossing the Sonoran Desert hoping for a better life. They guided us on a walk in that desert, showing us evidence along the way of migrants taking the walk that Eddie and Josephina and Eva took years ago, and even showed us a marker where a migrant died along with his dreams.
Reasonable people can disagree on the exact nature of immigration reform or how the ideal articulated in Emma Lazarus’ poem might become a reality. Amidst the various perspectives—the politics and ideology of it all—live human beings, with stories of hope and travail, drawn to this country by that lady and her torch. They confront walls each step of their way. There is no line to stand on. There is no fixed amount of money to pay or time to spend to obtain papers. The “right” way, according to most of the people with whom we spoke, doesn’t exist.
In Berakhot 19a, there is discussion about the greatness of human dignity and how it interplays with the law and when it should override the law. Our tradition wrestles with such questions, and so too should we. These questions beg for attention and proximity to the human beings most impacted. One need not travel to Arizona to be proximate. These stories are right here on our shores and, as the BJ sweatshirts that we all wore throughout the trip said: “Stories change perspectives.”
I will close with one final reflection: Our young people are passionate and engaged. They are idealistic and deeply committed to preserving human dignity and justice. They love their Jewish community here at BJ. I heard their singing on the bus, and their probing questions to our speakers, and the way they wrestled with the tragic gap between ideals and reality—they inspired and moved me greatly. Let their voices and stories help change our perspective on what the Jewish future might be.