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September 26, 2023

Lifting Up the Lamp (Yom Kippur 5784)

Hilly Haber

Lifting Up the Lamp
Rabbi Hilly Haber, Yom Kippur 5784


My great grandfather, Nathan Chanin, a political prisoner who escaped from a Siberian penal colony, arrived on Ellis Island in September of 1912.

Walking the streets of New York the week of his arrival, he stumbled on a rally at Madison Square Garden for Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Victor Debs.

What luck it is to be in America, he thought to himself, in a land that is on the doorstep of a socialist revolution.

Ja, Ich bin frei, a freier mensch zwischen freie menschen. Yes, I am free, he said to himself, a free person among a free people.”

Eugene Victor Debs won 6% of the popular vote that year, and my great grandfather became one of the millions of immigrants who called New York home.

From the beginning of its history as a European settlement, New York has been a city of immigrants, made and remade by centuries of global movement and trade.

The first large-scale wave of immigration to New York took place between 1840 and 1859. In 1854 alone, three hundred nineteen thousand new immigrants arrived to the city, which then held about six hundred thousand residents. Today, with New York’s  population of over 9 million people, an arrival on that scale would translate to 4.7 million immigrants arriving in New York city in one year.[1]

My great grandfather was part of the second large wave of immigration, one that lasted from the 1880s until the 1920s. During that time, New York’s population jumped from roughly 1.2 million to just under 7 million people.

[2]The city we know today took shape amid these waves of immigration. As NYU scholar Natasha Iksander has written: “without constant and repeated arrivals in large numbers, New York would not - could not - be New York. Its defining institutions: its economy; its skyscrapers, parks and infrastructure, its schools, hospitals, and social services…have all been produced through the city’s reception of the millions that have arrived on its shores” [3]

New York is a border land, porous and always changing shape; a place of encounter, exchange, and creativity.  Upon matriculating in a New York high school in the 1980s, a Jewish teenager from the Soviet Union said, “It is hard to know what we are supposed to be becoming. Everybody here is from someplace else.”[4]

Yom Kippur is a day for choosing who we want to be in the world, for doing the work of teshuvah. Personally and collectively, we look back in time; we take stock of our congregation, our city, and our nation. We grapple with what we have done—not to lacerate our souls but to help ourselves grow. We take the best of who we have been into the future. It is a time for truth-telling and committing to the work of repair. And it is a time when we are challenged to embrace change—indeed, to see ourselves as agents of change and transformation.

When we look across our city on this night of teshuvah, what do we see? We are a multi-ethnic and mutli-racial city of immigrants, united by our lived and inherited experiences of arrival and movement. We see people whose ancestors are indigenous to this land and people whose ancestors were brought here in shackles. We see the staggering inequality across New York’s neighborhoods that has been there since the very beginning, in fact Jewish immigrants were among the most excluded from New York’s economy when they first arrived. We see entrenched disparities in wealth, education, access to health care and healthy food, and a Federal immigration system that has historically excluded people on the basis of race, ethnicity, and nationality.

And, we also see that we are in a moment of acute crisis. In the last year, over 110,000 people seeking asylum in the United States have passed through New York City. Nearly 60,000 of them are currently living in shelters and emergency sites across the five boroughs, placing enormous strain on local services and infrastructure. City shelters, already overcrowded, are now overflowing into the streets; 20,000 newly arrived children have entered New York’s public schools, and thousands of adults who are eager and ready to work are unable to do so legally. Every corner of our city has been touched by this historical moment.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the devastating suffering that is now on our doorstep. But there is also something inspiring, about the arrival of people seeking asylum within our borders. Over the centuries, millions have refused to succumb to the desperate conditions around them. Exercising courage and initiative, they have sought out freedom for themselves and their families; they have crossed perilous terrain to find a new home in the promised land—di goldeneh medineh, the golden land, as my great-grandfather would have called it. New York’s history testifies to the strength and vitality of these newcomers. And we are seeing that history enacted in our own day, before our own eyes.

New Yorkers from across the world building new businesses and working for existing ones, creating robust, dynamic neighborhoods, organizing grassroots movements to lift up their communities. These new Americans enrich our nation in incomparable ways. They inspire us with their own energy, dedication and hard work. As they strive to build a new life for their families, they give new life to the American dream itself.

This moment of crisis is not unprecedented. We have been here before— where the numbers seem to outweigh the housing, jobs and resources—; and we have seen what is possible in a city of opportunity. Even now, recently arrived and veteran New Yorkers are working together as agents of teshuvah, of change and transformation, in this new chapter of New York’s story. With each act of resilience and kindness, the issues that once seemed intractable grow a little less daunting.

Here are just a few examples of how migrants themselves are already showing us the best of New York and the best of ourselves.

Andrew Heinrich is Founder and Executive Director of Project Rousseau, which coordinates legal assistance and other services for hundreds of families seeking asylum. To build cases for their clients, Andrew and his team rely on the eyewitness testimonies of newly arrived asylum seekers. One of those eyewitness experts is Atta. Atta was born in Afghanistan and is a member of the Hazara people, an ethnic minority group that has been persecuted for decades. Atta is a civil engineer who worked with the US-backed government to rebuild his home country. When the Taliban came back into power, he, his wife, and their six children were airlifted to Brazil. From there, they walked through the jungle across ten countries to cross into America from San Diego.

Atta hopes that his children will take advantage of the many educational opportunities available to them in New York so that they can help the Hazara community by becoming bridge builders between Afghanistan and the United States. We are thrilled that Central’s Nursery School has welcomed Atta’s youngest son, along with another of New York’s youngest refugees, into our classrooms.    

This summer, members of our Central community began volunteering with Team TLC and the Little Shop of Kindness, a volunteer-led network of hundreds of New Yorkers who come together to support asylum seekers. It was Team TLC volunteers who greeted the first buses of migrants at the Port Authority, providing welcome bags of essentials such as toiletries, socks, and food, and connecting them with city services. Their free store, the Little Shop of Kindness, continues to provide clothing, shoes, toys, books, and emergency supplies. Asylum seekers who themselves received support from Team TLC now return to the store as volunteers, to welcome and guide newcomers through their first days in the city.

And, just a few weeks ago, I stood on this bimah with a wedding couple, Carlos and Isaac. Dressed in matching pink suits and black bow ties, they beamed with joy as their future unfolded right here in this sanctuary. Just six months after arriving from Venezuela via the Dominican Republic, they have built a new life together here, nurturing a chosen family of work colleagues, new friends, and members of the Central Synagogue Welcome Project, who greeted them at JFK and have accompanied them every step of the way since their arrival.

After experiencing a lifetime of homophobia, Carlos and Isaac walked down this aisle with dignity, choosing a future for themselves that was impossible just six months ago.

During tomorrow’s afternoon service, you will hear stories of immigration from Central members and from refugees, including Carlos, who have been resettled by our Welcome Project. You will also have opportunities to support these newest New Yorkers throughout the year through Central’s new partnership with Hotel 46 in Times Square, one of the sites that is housing asylum seekers. In each of their stories, I hear the echo of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah: “Go forth from your homeland and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”[5]

We, the children of Abraham and Sarah, know that we exist solely because of our own transformative journey. We were born the moment when Abraham and Sarah answered God’s call, choosing to leave their homeland and step into a blessing-still-unfolding.

We have been called The People of the Book, but we might also be called the people of the journey. Our history is one of upheaval, woven of countless migrations and border-crossings; a repeated cycle of wandering and settling, exile and homecoming.

In so many times and so many places, we knew that to remain would mean death—physical, cultural and spiritual destruction. And so we left. Because we traveled, we have endured. From the Egyptian Empire to the Soviet Empire, we Jews have survived and thrived not by building walls, but by crossing borders. Propelled by fear, sustained by hope, we have fled for our lives, and built our futures anew.

Because we have been wanderers, the experience of estrangement, the sense that we are outsiders, is etched onto the soul[6] of the Jewish people. It is both our inheritance and our inspiration for moral action. “Love the stranger who resides in your midst,” Leviticus teaches, “for you were strangers in Egypt.” And the book of Exodus teaches:

“You must not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, since you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[7]

The moral inheritance we are given by our tradition is meant to direct us, and propel us into action. We know the heart and soul of the stranger; and because we know, we cannot look away from the crisis on our doorstep.

This is the night of Kol Nidre. The words mean “all our vows.” This night calls us to reflect on all the promises we have made, as Jews and as Americans; promises that define the people we want to be. As Jews we have made a collective promise: never again. Never again should desperate refugees be met with indifference to their plight. Never again should they find no safe haven, no home that welcomes them in. And as Americans we have made our own powerful promise. It is set forth in the words composed by Emma Lazarus—a Jewish activist and social reformer. We all know those words: like the words of Torah, they are etched upon our hearts.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame...
A mighty woman with a torch…and her name
Mother of Exiles.. 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!”[8]

As Americans, we have made a promise to desperate people seeking safe haven and a new life. We have promised to lift up the lamp of freedom, to be a beacon of light in a dark and dangerous world.

On this night of teshuvah, this night when we seek out the best that is in us, I remember my great-grandfather, Nathan Chanin, and the millions of others who flourished, like him, in the land of promise. And I am mindful of the words of writer Terry Tempest Williams: “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time”[9]

On this night, let us see beyond the crisis of our own time and ask how the future will judge us. Let us see the fire that dwells within those who seek shelter in our midst, the gifts they bring and the dreams they cherish.  Let us lift our sacred values high.

Let us remember our history, and the promises we have made.

[1] Natasha Iksander, Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, ​​Pages 2555-2564 | Received 25 Jul 2022, Accepted 25 Jan 2023, Published online: 20 Feb 2023; America's arrival city: how immigration made New York and how immigrant exclusion almost destroyed it: commentary on “Global commerce, immigration and diversity: a New York story” by Philip Kasinitz pg 2557
[2] Philip Kasinitz (2023) Global commerce, immigration and diversity: a New York story, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 46:11, 2533-2554, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2023.2174808 pg. 2539
[3] Natasha Iksander, Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, pg 2556
[4] One out of three : immigrant New York in the twenty-first century / edited by Nancy Foner. New York : Columbia University Press, 2013. 7
[5] Genesis 12:1-2
[6] Lev. 19:34
[7] Ex.23:9
[8] “The New Colossus,” in Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings (2002)
[9] [Robert Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth, 2005, p.25].

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.