America and the Jewish People at 350

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Eve, 5765, September 24, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

“Their arrival was not auspicious,” writes historian Karla Goldman, of the first Jews who came to the colonies that would become the United States, 350 years ago this month. When 23 Jewish refugees arrived in New Amsterdam, Goldman writes that Governor Stuyvesant “sent off a request to his superiors in Amsterdam for permission to expel immediately the ‘members of this deceitful race – such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.’” In a classic understatement, Goldman writes: “The official welcome was not exactly warm.”

We have come a long way. Stuyvesant was rebuffed by his superiors in Holland. America has been good for the Jewish people, and we dare say, the Jewish people have made significant contributions to the United States. Our good fortune in this country presents us with a great responsibility, to share our American blessings with others. Our gifts to America may make us proud, and they also leave us a legacy: We, as American Jews, must continue to offer our special gifts to help sustain our country as the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

Let us take a moment to analyze why America has been so good for the Jewish people.

We live in a land of immigrants. While some would still claim that their blood is redder than others, that they possess greater entitlement as “real” Americans, the fact is that the United States is a nation of people who came here, or whose ancestors immigrated, in order to find a better life, a greater opportunity, in freedom. Two notable exceptions, of course, are native American Indians and the descendants African American slaves, but the rest of us arrived in America as foreigners, and we made this land our own.

In his plea that those first Jews be banished from New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant wrote that, if the right to settle was granted to Jews, then the colony “‘would be unable to deny it to the Lutherans and Papists.’” Stuyvesant was right. A few Jews would not be America’s only minorities. If Jews would come here, then people of a variety of Christian faiths, and ultimately of non-Christian religions or no religion, might find a home here. And we all have. Together, Protestants of every stripe, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists and others have built this great nation.

Somehow, though, we Jews occasionally have a tendency to believe our own myths too well. We may imagine that we are somehow different from other immigrants who came to this land, seeking opportunity. We are tempted to think that we came only because of religious persecution.

To be sure, some, such as those escaping the Holocaust, were fleeing certain death. Those first 23, in 1654, were trying to stay a step ahead of the Inquisition. Having been expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, they went to Brazil, then a Dutch colony. By 1654, though, the Portuguese had conquered Brazil, bringing the hateful Inquisition with them. To this very day, Jews come to America, seeking religious freedom. We need look no further than the scores of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, who bless our congregation and community today.

The truth, though, is that the large majority of Jewish immigrants came here for the same reasons that brought Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and so many others. Conditions in their native lands had become unbearable. For some, religious oppression was part of the problem. For others, strict class lines were holding them back, or politics was the issue. For all of them, including Jewish immigrants, economics was a factor. Whatever their land of origin, these refugees of every nation and religion, came to America in search of a better future, for themselves and their children. Such is the American dream, is it not?

Today, we are besieged by talk radio hosts and other demagogues who would have us believe that allegedly unchecked immigration is America’s greatest problem today. Certainly, none among us would deny the security issues inherent in a post-9/11 world. And yet, the fire-throwers’ complaints are usually not that these immigrants are terrorists, but simply that they are not American. They supposedly are here to take jobs away from “real” Americans. Immigrants are charged with being a drain on our economy, as they seek education and health care here in America, rather than in their nations of origin. Similar ugly sentiments were voiced against Jewish immigrants in early parts of the last century. Some anti-immigrant forces today even attempt to make a pseudo-intellectual argument that, because our more recent immigrants are overwhelmingly Latino, they are changing the face of America in an un-American way, with their own language and customs. Would that these critics had visited the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the earliest decades of the 20th Century. They would have found a Jewish immigrant culture, much more foreign than the one that exists among Mexican-Americans today. The language was Yiddish, not Spanish, but it certainly wasn’t English.

Tomorrow afternoon, our Past President, Mickey Roth, will read these familiar words from Leviticus: “The foreigners who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Let us never forget our own difficult history. We have faced discrimination and anti-Semitism, even here in America. At one time, we were strangers in this land. Ever mindful of the miracle that Jewish life in America has become, may we lift up our voices to affirm that America’s newest immigrants are members of our very own family.

Perhaps Aaron Rosen put it best, when he wrote recently: “ . . . the nature of America has something uncannily in common with Judaism, a religion that maintains that all Jews stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah; even if they are converts, their souls are retroactively invested with a kind of primary authenticity. America does the same for its citizens, whenever they become citizens. Everyone, naturalized or born here, is the inheritor not only of the rights and freedoms of the place, but its responsibilities too.” We are all Americans-by-Choice, be we Jews or Christians, of European origin or Asian descent, whether our native tongue by English or Spanish or even Russian. Yes, we are all Americans-by-Choice, meaning that we are all, very much, Americans.

I used to believe, as some of you may, that Jews “made it in America,” becoming relatively successful in the socio-economic arena, because our immigrant ancestors placed an unusually high value on education, and because they worked hard. Like most myths, there is truth to this one.

The whole truth, though, is somewhat more complex. Some of the greatest misfortunes our people suffered in Christian Europe paradoxically placed Jewish immigrants in an excellent economic condition when they came to America. You see, in Europe, Jews were almost entirely prohibited from owning or working the land, where farming was the only means of making a decent living. Instead, Jews were forced into crafts, or into professions, or into buying and selling, what we would call wholesale or retail, all of which were roads only to poverty in medieval Europe. In 19th Century America, though, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the experience that Jews brought with them prepared them beautifully for success. Yes, our people studied and worked hard; they were also very lucky. Let us, then, not be smug in the face of those who have not yet made it in America. Let us never say: “My grandfather made it on his own, why can’t they?” The truth is that our ancestors came here in a situation very much more poised than “theirs” to make it in America. Let us savor our good fortune, and never rest until every citizen of this great nation has plenty to eat, excellent education, adequate housing, and full access to the finest health care system in the world.

Most Jewish immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, worked in factories – sweat-shops, really – for much of their lives. The working conditions were inhumane and the pay was even worse. They were dirt poor, and they lacked the advantages that all but the poorest among us take for granted today. As a result, we should not be surprised that Jews were among the founders of America’s labor unions.

Today, labor unions have a bad name in major swaths of our society. The history of our own Temple laity includes significant anti-union sentiment going back to the 1930s. And yet, concern for the common laborer is an important mitzvah of our faith, from the very beginning. We shall hear it tomorrow afternoon, from Leviticus, as we are commanded to pay our workers promptly. We shall hear it in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, in the words of Isaiah. The prophet castigates well-off worshipers, who are outwardly observant, keeping the fast, and showing off their ritualized self-affliction, but who all the while “think only of [their] business and oppress all [their] workers.”

Labor Unions are one of the greatest gifts that our Jewish people has ever offered to America. Unions gave workers dignity, within a capitalist economy. Unions provided laborers with a safe working environment, and with a decent standard of living, as they continue to do to this today. Admittedly, there are excesses, and even occasional corruption, in labor unions, as in almost all pursuits. Today, relatively few American Jews are members of labor unions. And yet, we can still celebrate this great legacy of our people in the United States. We can still endeavor to assure that all working Americans receive the honest living, fair treatment, and benefits that permit their families to be secure, in short, the dignity they earn, every day. Supporting the American worker is an American Jewish legacy. More importantly, it is a mitzvah, proclaimed in the Torah, enunciated by the Prophets, and practiced by our predecessors in this great land.

On this Eve of Yom Kippur, let us make a vow, kol nidre, all vows, vows that we intend to keep, for which we will not have to pray for release the same time next year. Let us commit ourselves to being all that American Jews can be, in keeping with our glorious legacy. Let the disempowered and the disenfranchised in this country never be far from our thoughts, whatever their religion, whatever their nation of origin. Let us recommit ourselves to the words engraved at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, verse by that great American Jewish poet and heroine of the labor movement, Emma Lazarus:

“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; . . .
cries she
With silent lips.
‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”

In this new year, may God bless the Jewish people. At this 350th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States, may God bless America.