The Holiness Code: Torah Reflections From Members of Our Community (5784/2023)
On Yom Kippur afternoon we read a section of the Torah known as the holiness code. This section, found in chapter 19 of Leviticus, is at the heart of the Torah and contains some of the most moving commandments within our tradition. This year, we delved into the profound teachings of Leviticus 19:33-34 which calls on us to “Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We asked committee members and recipients of The Central Welcome Project to reflect upon this commandment. Hear and read their personal stories, moving reflections, and deep understanding of the significance of welcoming the stranger.
"It had been easy for me to “other” him and turn away from this stranger. It was hard to remember that we weren’t that different."
"Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” commands the Torah at this—and many other times—in our tradition. I have long understood it as the expression of a deeply Jewish value of welcome, shaped by our people’s long history of displacement. But recently, I have begun to think that it is repeated so many times for another reason: because welcoming and loving the stranger can be hard.
A few weeks ago I returned, for the first time in 34 years, to a small town in Italy where my family lived as Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. It was a time of great uncertainty: we had been stripped of our Soviet citizenship and were in this small beachside town waiting to hear whether the American government would grant us refugee status. But I was a 10-year-old kid and it was summer in Italy and there was a beach, and my memories were of playing in the black sand and craving the ice cream we couldn’t afford to buy. Being back in this town, at its central fountain that had been the gathering place for our displaced community, was surreal. I watched my kids play in the same black sand as vacationers, not refugees. I felt deep gratitude for my family’s good fortune.
And then we were approached by a street vendor selling handmade African bracelets. Experienced New Yorker that I am, I readily indicated to him that we weren’t interested - until I paused. Because the thing is, we had been street vendors, too. Our generation of Soviet immigrants brought trinkets—Russian wooden spoons, nesting dolls—to sell to supplement our meager savings while suspended between our old and new lives. We kids all hawked our wares in the few words of Italian we knew. I had half forgotten that, many school degrees later - but yet there we had been, selling things on those same streets of that same little Italian town. This man’s story was both unalike and similar—he had fled Africa as a stowaway and now made a living selling bracelets, in his own refugee purgatory. It had been easy for me to “other” him and turn away from this stranger. It was hard to remember that we weren’t that different.
So now I think that perhaps the repetition in our liturgy is needed not only because loving the stranger is part of our values, but because it can be challenging, in the face of the stranger’s strangeness. Lest we lose our way, we are reminded to stay the course.
"I didn't realize that by welcoming the stranger, I was going to be welcomed BY the stranger."
I was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela. I was only 2 years old when my 26-year-old mother immigrated to the United States. She was in search of a brighter future for me and my sisters. Today, 30 years later, I find myself grappling with an existential quandary—what does it mean to be "Venezuelan"? Yes, I was born in Venezuela, but AM I "Venezuelan?" I left so young. All I know is that I can't cook very well. My feet get tied up when I dance salsa. My Spanish isn't as expansive or fluid as I would like, and I don’t have many memories of my homeland, either. I feel a profound sense of disconnection from my heritage.
Why am I telling you this? Because this year I worked with the Central Welcome Project to help resettle two remarkable Venezuelan people. They helped me uncover pieces of my identity that I didn't know were in me. I didn't realize that by welcoming the stranger, I was going to be welcomed BY the stranger.
In this past year, I have spoken more Spanish than I have in the last five years (I'm getting better) While celebrating Carlos' birthday, he and I shared a dance together and I didn't step on his toes...that much. I've been welcomed into their home and served home cooked meals that I never thought I would have again. We can't wait to celebrate the holidays together by making "hallacas" as a family.
Teshuvah is the central theme of the holidays. Typically, teshuvah is translated from the Hebrew as repentance, but it literally means "return," as if turning back to something you've strayed or looked away from. I want to thank Carlos and Isaac for rekindling my Venezuelan spirit, guiding me back to embrace my roots...in many ways, helping me return home.
Last August, I lost my beautiful Venezuelan mother much too soon. Her presence lingers within me, shaping every passing moment, even today. While preparing these words, her remarkable journey came flooding back—an arrival in an unfamiliar land, her three little daughters in hand, braving an unknown future. Once strangers, we were embraced by compassionate people along the way. She paid it forward until her last day. In honor of her enduring legacy, I will continue to find ways to perpetuate these acts of kindness.
Carlos and Isaac helped me find a piece of my mom that I thought I’d lost. May her memory be for a blessing as she continues to inspire me every single day.
"From you, I have learned more about God and God’s love. The more I know, the more I learn to love myself."
El 26 de julio de 2016 abandoné la violencia y la pobreza de Venezuela. Recuerdo ver a la gente golpeándose y apuñalándose por alimentos mientras hacía fila para comprar comida. Llevo esos recuerdos hasta el día de hoy. Cuando llegué a la República Dominicana en busca de oportunidades económicas, sentí que parte de mi cuerpo había desaparecido. Mi madre, mi hija, mi alma, mis costumbres y mi espíritu estaban todos en Venezuela. Por años me sentí muy solo.
Después conocí a mi amor, Isaac, por fin una alma de mi país de origen. El 21 de marzo de 2023, aterrizamos juntos en el aeropuerto JFK en la ciudad de Nueva York. Llegamos aquí como refugiados, después de sobrevivir homofobia y xenofobia cuales soportamos como pareja gay viviendo en un país extranjero.
Jamás soñé que viviría en los Estados Unidos. Al principio cuando llegamos, siempre tenía frío. Recuerdo ir caminando por Central Park, viendo los edificios gigantes, nos sentíamos "como cucaracha en baile de gallina.
Hemos tenido muchas sorpresas; aquí me siento seguro cuando voy caminando por la calle con Isaac. Pero la mayor sorpresa de todas es la familia que hemos encontrado en la Sinagoga Central. You have been our best gift. Hemos sentido el amor de Dios a través de sus manos. De ustedes he aprendido más sobre Dios y el amor de Dios. Y en cuanto más sé, más aprendo a amarme a mí mismo.
I left the violence and poverty of Venezuela on July 26th 2016. I remember watching people get stabbed while standing in line for food. Those memories have stayed with me until today.
When I arrived in the Dominican Republic in search of economic opportunities, I felt like a piece of my body went missing. My mother, my daughter, my soul and my spirit, were all in Venezuela. For years, I felt alone.
And then I met my love, Isaac, a kindred spirit from my home country, and together, on March 21st 2023, we landed at JFK airport in New York City. We came here as refugees, survivors of the homophobia and xenophobia we endured as a gay couple living in a foreign country. I never dreamed I would live in the United States. When we first arrived, I was cold all the time. I remember walking in Central Park, looking up at the big buildings, and feeling …as we say… like a cockroach at a chicken dance.
There have been many surprises here. I feel safe walking down the street with Isaac. But the greatest surprise of all is the family we have found at Central Synagogue. You have been our greatest gift. We have felt God’s love through your hands. From you, I have learned more about God and God’s love. The more I know, the more I learn to love myself.
"I hope my children will be guided by these lessons and what it means to be a stranger."
"For you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
It’s hard to imagine a collective symbolic memory of being a foreigner in an ancient land. But I do vividly recall the challenges of balancing my cultural identities and the times I felt like a stranger in the most familiar places.
My parents were a modern day odd couple. My father’s family fled early pogroms in Eastern Europe in search of a better life. By the time I was born, the family was fully assimilated. Thanksgiving, not Rosh Hashanah, was the holiday that brought us all together.
In contrast, my mother was born in French Morocco. Her entire community moved from Casablanca to Paris because of the fear of growing antisemitism. She came here in search of greater independence and opportunity, firmly committed to never assimilate, met my father, and here I am.
As a child, I experienced firsthand the complicated task of melding two identities. French was my first language. When I started school I struggled to hide my accent to avoid being teased. In the cafeteria, I often wondered “why can’t I just have peanut butter and jelly instead of sardines on baguette?!” To a young child, It was embarrassing and hard to feel included. By high school I fully embraced my “American” side. This duality allowed me to cloak myself in cultural anonymity, deftly moving between spaces, concealing feelings of being a stranger. But negotiating this in-between space bothered me.
I’ve come to appreciate there was no need to choose. My story was far richer when both identities were combined. Now, as a parent, I am committed to preserving my Moroccan roots and grateful for the treasures of this heritage. There are sadly fewer daily reminders, but I am determined.
I hope my children will be guided by these lessons and what it means to be a stranger. I hope they know that the in-between is not a void of belonging but a powerful and holy place where genuine connection occurs when you remember who we were, individually and collectively, and embrace inclusion.
"As Jews, we are called to turn the pain of movement and displacement into a source of empathy, action, and love: affirming the humanity and dignity in every person."
I was born in Mexico and emigrated with my family to the US at age 13. From the beginning, this country has felt like a beloved stepmother who refuses to love you back. I miss Mexico and a sense of truly belonging every single day.
We Jews are commanded to love the stranger because we have been strangers, and yearning for home is a universal human experience—but finding security, belonging, and a sense of identity in a new land is not truly possible when you are a stranger who‘s seen as unacceptable, when your humanity and dignity feel contingent.
I will not romanticize welcoming the stranger because it is messy, complex and flawed. Our Welcome Project at Central engages in this work because there is so much pain and so much love—it’s all mixed together, and in this process we are able to disentangle it more, so that we can experience the love more purely and the pain more purely, and it doesn’t hurt to love.
As Jews, we are called to turn the pain of movement and displacement into a source of empathy, action, and love: affirming the humanity and dignity in every person. We are all in this together. The fate of our children and of our city, is tied together with the fate of every person who calls New York home.
"But the most special thing was the trust and friendship they gave us—regardless of religion, creed, or race."
Hace año y medio en mi país, Guatemala, las pandillas mataron a mi hijo y querían matar a mi familia. El futuro era incierto para nuestra familia. Y ya estando en Estados Unidos, el primer mes aquí fue aún más incierto—con otro idioma, costumbres, cultura y una ciudad desconocida para nosotros. Era terrible. La agencia que nos iba a apoyar aquí nos dejó solos ese mes. Yo tuve que conocer Brooklyn caminando por muchas calles para buscar un apartamento. A veces iba a llorar en algún parque. Ese mes fue una pesadilla!
Hasta que gracias a Dios, nos mandó muchos ángeles a nuestras vidas y todo cambió — nos ayudaron a conseguir un apartamento, a estudiar inglés, con médicos, y muchas cosas más. Pero lo más especial fue la confianza que nos dieron y su amistad—sin importar religión, credo, o raza. Gracias a Central Synagogue vimos el valor de sentirnos queridos, y que les importamos a todos los que nos han ayudado. Mas que nada su amistad porque nos hacen sentirnos en casa y en familia. Most of all, their friendship made us feel at home, with family.
He comprendido qué debemos ayudar al extraño como si fuera nosotros mismos o sea como nos gustaría ser tratados y aprendí que no sólo se debe ayudar con dinero sino con una amistad sincera y ver las necesidades físicas espirituales mentales y hoy que soy un extraño lo aprendí por las ayudas que me han dado.
A year and a half ago in my country, Guatemala, the gangs killed my son and wanted to kill my family. The future was uncertain for our family. And when we arrived in the United States, it was even more uncertain—another language, customs, culture and a city unknown to us. It was terrible. The agency that was going to support us left us alone. I had to get to know Brooklyn by walking through many streets to look for work and an apartment. Sometimes I would find a park to go cry. That month was a nightmare!
Until God sent these angels into our lives and everything changed; they helped us get an apartment, study English, find doctors, and many other things. But the most special thing was the trust and friendship they gave us—regardless of religion, creed, or race. Thanks to Central Synagogue we saw the value of feeling loved and cared for. Most of all, their friendship made us feel at home, with family. I have learned that we should help the stranger how we would like to be treated ourselves.
I learned that not only should we help with money but also with sincere friendship and take the physical, spiritual, mental into account. Now that I am the stranger, I’ve learned a lot from the help given to me.
Learn more about the Central Welcome Project's efforts to support refugees and asylum-seekers.
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