The Latest from BZBI

Welcoming the Stranger

Yitro 5779 / 26 January 2019

January 29, 2019

This week’s D’var Torah focuses on our work with HIAS and the Mbonigaba family. To learn more and to help support this program–either financially or through volunteering–click here.

In this week’s Parasha, Yitro, we arrive at the apex of the Exodus story – Bnai Yisrael arrive at Har Sinai, and Hashem is ready to close the deal. Hashem tells Moshe to talk to the elders of Bnai Yisrael and say “You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagles’ wings and bringing you to Me. Now IF you obey me and keep My covenant, you will be my special treasure among all the nations.” An “am segula” (4,5)

So, will they or won’t they? Have they figured out this God is the God for them? Have all those plagues, split seas, thunder, clouds and the offer of the Torah finally proven much He loves them? Will they choose to be chosen?

Well, as you know, it was a happy answer. “All the people answered as one and said, All that God has spoken, we will do.” Kol asher deber Adonai, na’aseh. (8)

And this is how the Jewish people came to a life of commandedness, of covenental relationship with God and His mitzvot. And it is our responsibility and joy to renew this covenant throughout our daily lives.

Of course we get to hear the Ten Commandments this week, a lot of work for most people to contend with, but at the end of the Parasha we learn another of these 613 commandments we agreed to – how God wants his altar to be constructed, and that we should not “climb up to My altar with steps, so that your nakedness not be revealed to it.” (23). Rashi explains this first by saying that, since people wore tunics in those days, climbing up steps could cause a “wardrobe malfunction” in this holiest place.

But beyond this, Rashi also explains that, if one revealed one’s nakedness to these mere stones, “one would be treating them in a disrespectful manner. From this we can learn that Just as in the case of these stones that have no knowledge (or sense) to pay attention to disrespect, and the Torah states there is a need to behave towards them in a manner that is not disrespectful, your companion (ie another human being) who is created in the image of your Creator, and who pays attention to disrespect, how much the more so!”

This last interpretation, that all our fellow human beings deserve respect, is why I wanted to speak with you today. This idea that all people are created in the image of God, in conjunction with many admonitions to welcome the stranger, are part of this covenant with God that we chose at Har Sinai. Taking care of people with respect and generosity is part of what it means to live a commanded life.

And that’s why I feel lucky to be involved in a joint effort between BZBI and Society Hill Synagogue to support some of our newest neighbors, the Mbonigaba family. Suzana and Merthus arrived in Philadelphia 3 years ago from the Congo, via Namibia, with their 5 children – Alpha, who is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh; Delice, who is a freshman at Furness High School; Merci, a 6th grader; Michele, a 1st grader, and Esther, a kindergartener. They are happy to announce the birth of their 6th child right here in Philadelphia, last month. Baby Eliyah.

We were able to meet the Mbonigaba family through HIAS, an organization that helps resettle refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world. My life is enriched by getting to know this family.

Merthus would like to become a nurse. He was able to take some nursing courses while he was in Namibia, and there his passion for medicine was born. Right now, he is working at a factory but we are helping him move towards this career goal. Merthus speaks 8 or more languages, is funny, kind, very smart, and a deeply spiritual person. I have loved getting to know him.

Suzana is also very smart and very funny. I have rarely seen someone who enjoys her children’s sense of humor as much as she does. This family cracks each other up. The kids are each more loving, funny, and spirited than the next.

In our volunteer efforts, we have been able to help Merthus find new employment and study for his GED, transport and support Suzana at all of her prenatal and post-natal doctors visits, set up tutoring every Wednesday at the kids’ school with enough volunteer educator brain power to knock your socks off, help Delice navigate through her transition to high school, and take the kids on several excursions throughout the city just for fun.  We have volunteers visiting and working with the family to help them with housing, finances, health and education, 2 to 4 times a week.  It has been an amazing all-hands-on-deck opportunity for the 2 synagogues, and I am awed and humbled to see the generosity of spirit of my fellow HIAS volunteers.

HIAS, which goes by its acronym now but was once The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was established to help Eastern European Jews fleeing from pogroms to settle in America. But in the 1970s when there wasn’t a need to resettle so many Jews, HIAS had to decide on its mission. The president of HIAS, Mark Hettfield, said “We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

And that, friends, is what it means to choose to be chosen, to choose a covenental life.

And how can you participate in this mitzvah, this commandment, to welcome the stranger? I’m so glad you asked. In addition to volunteer opportunities to work with Suzana, Merthus, and their delightful children, which you can speak to me or Rebecca Krasner about, we are launching a GoFundMe page that you will find BZBI’s website. We are calling the fund Dollars for Diapers, as diapers for baby Eliyah are very expensive and this is something meaningful for the family. We are also collecting money for the family in general – to help them move into a better house, to help the kids get supplies and extra-curricular activities, and anything that would continue to make their new home of Philadelphia more hospitable. So go to the shul website, and under the tab “Get Involved,” click “Serve,” and you will find a link to the fundraising site.

Thank you and Shabbat shalom.