FEBRUARY 11, 2011
Tomorrow will be February 12. So what’s the big deal about that date? While growing up that date along with February 22 were days off from school. As some of you recall, the first is Lincoln’s birthday and the second, Washington’s. Now both are combined on the third Monday of February for “President’s Day” and in New Orleans are pretty much lost in Mardi Gras season. I remember them as days that prompted us to focus on the meaning of what it is to be an American.
For many years we had a member of the congregation, who annually made a donation to the synagogue and insisted that it be worded precisely: “In memory of George Washington, the Father of our country and Abraham Lincoln, who preserved it.” In truth his donation was an expression of patriotism and a passive aggressive protest over the loss of distinct days for each, along with the fact that we close the synagogue office on Martin Luther King Day, but not President’s Day.
Indeed specific holidays elicit patriotism, but those feelings can also be prompted by places and events. Recently I experienced a confluence of both.
As part of our annual Confirmation Trip to New York, we take a brief boat excursion into New York harbor to visit Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1954 over 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island on their way to freedom and citizenship in America. In 1907 alone, 1.25 million entered the United States through Ellis Island. Many were part of the major Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to which some of you can undoubtedly trace your family roots.
On the way to this portal for a new life, immigrants sailed past the Statue of Liberty, perhaps America’s most prominent symbol of freedom. I know how excited all of my students were as we briefly docked alongside the grand lady en route to Ellis Island. The cameras were clicking, as a cacophony of tourist voices in multiple languages expressed delight and reverence to see the site. One can only imagine what it was like on board the steamers of the early 1900s.
They came from Germany and Russia and Poland, as well as Italy, Ireland, Turkey, Greece and every other European country. Admission was not automatic. There were physical exams that had to be passed, proof of economic potential to be offered and screening of political views to be overcome before being allowed entrance to the Goldene Medina, as our Yiddish speaking ancestors called this Golden Land. From 1917 on, America the great melting pot, placed a lid over the pot to limit who could enter, resulting in the deaths of millions of our people who sought entrance prior to and during World War II.
In truth there has always been resistance to allowing new immigrants to enter the country. Ironically, it is often from the more recent immigrants, who have forgotten what admission meant to them. Then, as is true for those who seek to immigrate today, their quest was for a better life, economic security and political freedom. As the new immigrants departed Ellis Island on skiffs bringing them to the shore of Manhattan, with Lady Liberty behind them, the uniform chorus was “God Bless America.”
A few days after visiting Ellis Island, I found myself back home in New Orleans, but symbolically on Ellis Island. The 24th floor of the Canal Place Office building, with a magnificent view of the Mississippi, houses the United States Immigration Court. I was there to testify on behalf of a young man seeking political asylum. His individual case was not unlike many people who have been resident in the United States for decades, but whose legal status is in question. This young man was originally from Bangladesh and has been raised and educated for 20 years in the U.S. Due to unusual family circumstances, he was not a citizen.
His particular story is unique in that for many of his formative years, though nominally coming from a Moslem family, he lived with and was nurtured by a Jewish family. In maturity he has been in the process of formally making the connection to Judaism through conversion. However, he was in one of those Catch 22 situations. He had no job and so the government sought to deport him, but he could not get a job, because he had no Green Card. I’m not going into the intricacies of the law, other than to say he was between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
My role was to testify to the fact that he was in the process of conversion and that I was confident of his sincerity. Another expert witness was prepared to testify that if he were to return to Bangladesh that he would likely become the object of hate and violence, based upon a documented record of persecution of Jews in his homeland. Sitting in the court that day were the attorneys, the judge, the young man seeking asylum and his Aunt and Uncle, who are citizens. Following my testimony, consisting of responses to questions from his lawyer and then cross-examination by the government’s attorney, the Judge paused the proceedings and surprisingly immediately ruled in his favor. Tears welled up in the eyes of his family and mine. I was transported back to Ellis Island in my mind and the immigration officer just granted permission for entry. The United States continues to be the “Goldene Medina” for many. We all recited, “God Bless America” to ourselves.
Just a few hours later, I found myself at Gates of Prayer’s Joseph Street Cemetery. The flag draped casket of Sidney Graff was in front of me and a Naval Honor Guard was to my left and right. Sidney had spent most of his professional career working for the Army Corps of Engineers, but the honor guard was present to mark his service in the Navy during World War II. Some of you may remember Sidney. He was short and thin, always polite and inquisitive. He grew up in New Orleans. I learned that he was in the first class of Fortier High School, playing the French horn in the band. He served in the Pacific during World War II. On one occasion he had the opportunity to leave the battle group and simply spend the rest of his tour of duty playing the French horn for the Navy Band in Australia. He chose active duty to safety. With the flag draped casket before me, recollections of my past days’ experiences in mind, an officer played Taps, while two other officers ever so precisely folded the American Flag to present to his daughter. In my mind, I said to myself, “God Bless America.”
The next night we began our three part series on interfaith understanding in our sanctuary among Jews, Christians and Moslems, which concluded last week. In truth this was an amazing program, the “best ever” according to one of our past Presidents. Sitting in the church and our sanctuary were approximately 150 Jews, Christians and Moslems, with the Moslems in the greatest number. Together we gained greater understanding of one another and our different faiths. No one was trying to convince the other, but simply develop relationships. I believe this is an important statement about the evolution of the faith community. In particular the message from the Moslem community was that we are your brothers and sisters; we are Americans originally from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, but we are Americans. Looking around the sanctuary, seeing the diversity of who we are as a community, all could easily say, “God bless America.”
Keep in mind the timing of all this was with the backdrop of the shootings in Arizona. While we know that the perpetrator was a mentally imbalanced individual, it came with the atmosphere of political intolerance. Arizona has certainly been in the spotlight of the immigration issues, passing laws that leave immigrants open to racial profiling; clamoring for stricter immigration enforcement. This week an attempt to change the law, so that those born in the United States are not automatically granted citizenship. It has been tabled, but it is likely not gone. The sin of xenophobia, fear of foreigners, is one that permeates all too many aspects of our society. One would think with our history in mind we would find ways to welcome new immigrants to America, instead of fearing them, steering them away lest they steal our jobs. Yes, there are those who entered America illegally. Many of our ancestors did the same. In truth much of the proposed immigration legislation is directed to legalize the reality of good, decent, hard-working people, who have contributed to this country for years, who have worked in our homes, built our buildings, harvested our crops and repaired our city. As we approach the Presidents Day observance it behooves us to remember that the foundation of our country is diversity, not xenophobia.
Mark Shields of PBS put it succinctly in his analysis of events in Arizona, when he commented: “THIS is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”
To all of this I can only say: “God bless America.”