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Remembering Those in Search of Refuge

Rosh Hashanah 5776

September 16, 2015

In honor of Sheri Rosenberg, of blessed memory.

Shana tovah. I feel so blessed to stand here with you today to welcome in the New Year with the BZBI community to sing, to celebrate, to reflect, to connect and to create memories together.

The period around the Days of Awe is a time rich with memories- of new school years or jobs, of changing seasons, of prayerful melodies and the taste of festive meals. And it’s a time to remember generations past- our ancestors who came before us.

Yeish Mafdali was one of nine children born to my mother’s grandparents, Rumia and Daoud. Several of their children died in childbirth on the journey from Yemen to the Holy Land. When my grandfather was born after five consecutive miscarriages they named him Yeish, meaning ‘life’’ in Arabic, in gratitude for his life and in the hope that he would survive and thrive.

The Mafdalis emigrated from Sana’a at the turn of the 20th century seeking greater economic opportunity and an escape from the cycles of anti-Semitism. Instead of heading straight to Palestine, they first followed a trade route east across the Arabian Sea to India. There, my great-grandfather, my mother’s jedo, worked for a time as a barber before the family sailed to the Red Sea and through the recently opened Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Coast of Egypt. They settled for a few years in Alexandria, dwelling in a Jewish community that was about as old as the community in Yemen that they had left- dating back to the city’s founding by Alexander the Great in the third century BCE.

My grandfather was born there in Alexandria. My mother keeps on her piano a photograph of my grandfather’s family in those years- it’s a formal family portrait, a powerful image in which everyone is wearing an austere expression. My great-grandfather is also wearing a fez and a thick mustache, a style popular throughout the Ottoman Empire at the time. Little Yeish in his suspenders knickers couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 years old.

Around 1922, just as the League of Nations was confirming the British Mandate of Palestine, the Mafdali Family arrived in Jerusalem and settled into Nachalat Tzvi, a Yemenite neighborhood near Meah Shearim- where Yeish soon developed a reputation as the energetic boy who chased chickens through the narrow courtyards. Their stay in the Holy City was short-lived. In the summer of 1929, tensions between Jews and Arabs erupted into riots throughout Mandate Palestine and the Mafdalis fled the unprecedented violence for America.

They would settle in the Lower East Side. Yeish was sent to an Ashkenazi Talmud Torah. Since he did not speak either language of instruction- English or Yiddish- his new school placed him in a class of kids six years his junior. He couldn’t stand it and stowed away on a boat bound for Palestine.  Thankfully one of his classmates snitched on him and the Coast Guard managed to get him off the vessel just before it left New York Harbor! Several years later Yeish married my grandmother, Julia Maleh, who was born in New York just after her family had arrived from Aleppo, Syria.

Each of our families has an immigration story- a story of risks and journeys taken. They arrived from Germany, from Russia, from Palestine, from Amsterdam, from Morocco, from Austro-Hungary, Israel, from Iran. They came with hopes of leaving poverty and hunger behind them; They came fleeing religious persecution, restrictive laws and pogroms. They came as migrants or as refugees, with passports and papers or without. They all came seeking economic and social opportunity and the promise of freedom to live as they chose. America is a nation of immigrants and we Jews are a migratory people.

We Jews have wandered from land to land usually of necessity, often by force- since the Exile, and before. Long before, in fact from the beginning- The father of our nation, Abraham, was a wandering Aramean. The Israelites were known as the Hebrews, Ivrim, after Avraham Ha-Ivri[1]– Abraham the wanderer, the boundary crosser, the migrant. Even late in life, after the death of his beloved wife Sarah, he describes himself as a ger v’toshav- a stranger and a sojourner, a resident alien.[2]

In the millennia since Abraham, and the dispersion, migration has been a constant feature of the Jewish experience. Over and over again in our history, Jews have been conditionally welcomed and protected by the ruling powers for as long as it serves their interest; when they have deemed our presence to no longer be economically or politically advantageous, those protections have been revoked, or we have been summarily dismissed from that land, until the next time that our presence was beneficial.

We Jews are a migratory people. We know what it’s like to be strangers, to be aliens; we know what it’s like to be vulnerable, to be denied basic rights and protections, to bear the burden of discrimination and oppression. What have we learned from these experiences in Jewish history and in the story of our own families?

At the heart of the services for the first Day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the banishment of Hagar.[3] Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, is expelled from Abraham’s home. A foreigner in Canaan, she and her son Ishmael have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. Left to wander in the wilderness with woefully insufficient provisions, Hagar cries out in despair as Ishmael is on the verge of dying of thirst.

I recently came across a series of photo essays by Associated Press chief photographer Muhammed Muheisen[4] of Syrian children, young mothers and pregnant women in Jordanian refugee camps. The images Muheisen captures are intimate, stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking. I found myself wondering what Hagar and Ishmael looked like and imagining them in these portraits. When I saw the image a few weeks ago of three year old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on the shores of Turkey, I imagined his mother’s tears, and I imagined Hagar crying out for her child.

As the crisis of Syrian refugees and internally displaced Syrians worsens by the day, caught between the horrors of ISIS and the Assad regime.  I wonder how my grandfather, Yeish would respond. How would my grandmother, Julia, and her parents react to the destruction of an ancient and illustrious culture and to the collapse of the Syrian society that was their home for centuries? I wonder how they would want me to respond to the millions of Syrian children and adults who have fled their ancestral homeland seeking asylum.

How would our ancestors respond? We know too well what it’s like to be without a home, to wander, defenseless and desperate. We know what it’s like to be given safe haven. And we know what it’s like to be turned away. We experienced it again in the last century: German Jews forced to emigrate en masse with the rise of the Third Reich, leaving behind all valuable possessions, only to encounter insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining immigrant visas in countries that refused to adjust rigid quotas to respond to what was becoming a global crisis. We remember the St. Louis’ 1939 voyage from Hamburg across the Atlantic only to be turned away from our shores by the Roosevelt administration. Thank God we have in the State of Israel, a home that promises to receive us no matter what.

This day, Rosh Hashanah, is known as Yom Hazikaron– the Day of Remembrance. It is fitting to ask further: How do we remember injustices we have suffered? A1nd Why? What is the function of preserving those memories?

To begin to answer these questions we can look toward our teacher Moses. Standing on the banks of the Jordan river at the end of the forty years of wandering through the desert, Moses gives a long speech to the children of Israel. He speaks to the second generation, who did not directly experience God’s wonders in taking the people out of Egypt. Moses tells them their history and transmits the details of the Exodus, of Revelation at Sinai and the journey through the wilderness. He brings the stories of our people to life with a constant refrain: Remember. Whatever you do and don’t do, remember – that your were a slave in Egypt- “V’zacharta ki ‘eved hayita be-Eretz Mitzrayim.”[5]

The type of memory that Moshe calls for is an active memory- We don’t remember our past simply to reinforce our own narrative. In the Torah the repeated charge to remember our past experience as slaves and as foreigners is accompanied by mitzvot, by calls to action: Therefore do not set a servant free without providing him the means for economic independence; therefore rest on the Sabbath day and let your servants and animals rest too; therefore love the stranger; love the stranger. Thirty-six times, love the stranger.

We remember in order to bring the past experience into the present. We remember so that we will stand with those who are weak and vulnerable, as we too have been weak and vulnerable. We remember so that we will fight injustice and oppression wherever it is to be found. This type of active remembering that the Torah prescribes is not always comfortable. It sensitizes us to the reality of human suffering. It interrupts our accepted reality, shakes our assumptions, shocks us out of what is familiar. Christian theologian Johann Baptist Metz calls this kind of remembering, “dangerous memory.”

In our world today, the number of people who have left their homes due to economic hardships, armed conflicts, human rights violations, natural disasters and climate change has risen dramatically over the past few years. For the first time since World War II, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide is approaching 60 million people.[6] Many of them are families travelling together. Half of them are children. They come from countries all over the world- From Iraq, Colombia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria. From Syria alone more than 4 million people have fled over the past two years. Over half the country’s population.

This year we’ve been preparing for the High Holy Days against the backdrop of appalling stories of desperate individuals fleeing their homes to Europe seeking asylum, of refugees packed by the dozens into flimsy rubber rafts to cross the Mediterranean, of youth and elderly walking hundreds of miles for the promise of safety and opportunity in Germany and Western Europe. Just as the stories and memories of our past inform our present, we can’t help but see the sacred texts and symbols of the season in light of current events.

Our rabbis teach that the voice of the shofar is the voice of a mother crying for her children. It is the voice of Sarah, wailing, when she learns that Abraham has taken their beloved boy to Mount Moriah, to sacrifice in the name of religion. It is the voice of Sisera’s mother, nameless, who gazes out the window, waiting in vain, for her son to return from war.[7] It is the voice of the suffering and the oppressed. It is the voice of Hagar, who was run out of water for her son, and it is the voice of Ishmael, a child wandering, with no one to take him in.

In the Torah this morning, we read the words, “…ki shama’ Elohim et kol ha-na’ar ba-asher hu sham.[8] God hears the cries of this child in the place where he is- as the Talmud stresses, regardless of what he may do in the future, of he may become, God hears Ishmael as he is in this moment- a child crying out in his time of need.[9] As those who are tasked with walking in the light of Gods presence, as we hear the shofar, let us hear the cries, the cries of mothers, children, men, of our ancestors, of future generations.

The call of the shofar also represents the voice of the prophets, piercing our hearts, forcefully awakening us and reminding us of our potential to act. To become our highest selves, to repair the brokenness around us.

So what can we do?


First of all, we can advocate. According to the international refugee resettlement organization, HIAS, which was founded by the Jewish community and is guided by Jewish values (and which very well may have helped to resettled my grandparents and yours), the most significant impact that we, the American Jewish community, can have right now is through our advocacy. We can speak up to ensure that the U.S. government steps up to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis by calling on our elected officials to take a leadership role in helping to bring this crisis to resolution. So far the US has taken in 1,500 Syrian refugees and the Obama administration last week committed to taking in 10,000 in the next fiscal year. But that is simply not enough we need to do a lot more, and our country has the capacity. HIAS is calling on the president to resettle 100,000 additional Syrian refugees into the United States, a call that’s shared by a range of refugee agencies in Washington and Jewish organizations including the Jewish Federations of North America. You can visit to sign their petition or contact your local elected official.

We can educate ourselves. The global refugee crisis is complex and changing. You can commit this season to learning more about the about the situation.

We can volunteer. There are many opportunities to volunteer with refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world here in Philadelphia through the local chapters of HIAS and Repair the World.

We can also donate to organizations that are working with refugees, including HIAS, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief.

It is truly a blessing to be part of this congregation. I have this past year seen how big our hearts are. I have seen what a capable and courageous community we can be when we act together.

On this Day of Rememberance, Yom Hazikaron, we call on God to remember us and The Holy One calls on us to remember God, and to remember our holy purpose in this world. We respond to God’s call by remembering our suffering and our liberation, and by allowing ourselves to be moved by the suffering of others. We respond to God by working “to bring an end to callousness and indifference.” As my teacher Rabbi Shai Held writes, “the God of the prophets is… profoundly affected by the cries of the oppressed and downtrodden. The God of Israel is a God of pathos and concern, and to worship this God – really to worship this God- is to have our indifference shattered, and our stubborn selfishness torn to shreds.”[10]

In just a moment, we will enter our musaf prayers. We will pray for the most personal and intimate things and we will pray for the whole world and all its inhabitants- for “who is not remembered on this day?”[11]. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.”[12]

As we pray today, may we open our eyes to the world around us. May we open our ears to the cries of the shofar. May we open our hearts to the voices of those seeking refuge. May we remember where we have been and where we our going. May we know that our own cries, too, are heard by God.

[1] Genesis 14:13, Genesis Rabbah, 42:8
[2] Genesis 23:4
[3] Genesis 21:1-34
[5] Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18
[7] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 33b
[8] Genesis 21:17
[9] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah,16b. See Rashi, ad loc., s.v. “shel otah sha’ah.”
[10] Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 232
[11] Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
[12] Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Holy Dimension,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 343