The Statue of Liberty & The Ideal of Welcoming The Stranger

July 03, 2020

The Statue of Liberty & The Ideal of Welcoming The Stranger

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Heading into the July 4th holiday, these words resonate with particular meaning this year. Emma Lazarus penned the sonnet “The New Colossus” in 1883, when European immigrants—including Italians, Greeks, and European -Jewish refugees—were arriving en masse in America. After her death, these words became affixed to the Statue of Liberty and together became associated with the ideal of welcoming the stranger, the vulnerable and those seeking freedom to America’s shores.

We Jews know well the benefits of the freedoms that come with US citizenship, and not to take them for granted. From the time of the bible, our history is filled with wanderings, battles, and persecutions as we navigated our path of exile. While continually longing for our own home in the land of Israel, we took up residence throughout the world, and flourished during times of freedom. Since arriving on America’s shores, we Jews have found opportunities, put down deep roots, and have been privileged to participate fully in American life.

An immigrant family's view of New York City from Ellis Island circa 1925.

It’s fair to say that most of us know our Jewish story; our long history with all of its vicissitudes is central to both our individual and communal identity. Through our schooling, we also learned the basics of American History, and are able to see ourselves within that story. And yet, for as much as we know about the stories of America and Americans, we are now taking note of how much we don’t know about the Black American experience, particularly with regards to the absence of freedoms, resulting in generations of discrimination, systemic racism and oppression. No less than us, the Black community in the US ‘yearns to breathe free’ – literally. And we must learn their story – the horrors and the high points, in order to empathize and strategize to effect change in our communities. Here are just a few resources to get you started:

  1. Book: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  2. Documentary Film: 13th by Ava Duvernay
  3. NY Times Podcast:1619 Project)

We know well what injustice looks like and feels like. Seeing the world through a Jewish lens mandates that we reject bigotry and discrimination irrespective of its targets. One of our great teachers, Rabbi Hillel said: “When the community is suffering, one may not say ‘I will go to my house, eat and drink, and I will be fine'” (Ta’anis 11a). At the heart of Jewish living is engagement in the world around us. We have a role in securing liberty and justice for all.

May our Independence Day celebrations inspire us to learn and to act, and work towards the day when all Americans prosper with the promise of freedom.

Rabbi Judith Beiner
JF&CS of Atlanta