What I Learn From My Grandfather’s Painting
On the wall of my study at the synagogue is a painting my grandfather Alex did in the early 1920’s. It depicts the Leviathan, the ship that brought my grandfather from Europe to this country. Both he and my grandmother, also an immigrant, came here fleeing persecution. My grandmother spent weeks, if not months, in fear of the next pogroms. It was a hard life and one that they rarely spoke of. Instead, they spent their entire adult lives as proud citizens of these United States.
That painting sits on my study wall as a constant reminder that my sister Martha and I have the life we have because of our grandparents’ decision to come to America. The painting is there to ensure that I never forget that I am the grandchild of immigrants and that, as a result, I not only owe this nation a debt of gratitude, but I also have a responsibility to help shape the nature of this republic.
It is also there to remind me that our nation’s legacy regarding those who came here fleeing religious persecution and seeking refuge is a mixed bag. There have been times when we embodied the words written on the Statue of Liberty, but there have also been times when we all but disregarded her message.
The current administration is seeking to turn away those who, like my grandparents, have fled their nation of origin. Many are fully vetted refugees fleeing persecution. Others are simply looking to build a better life for their family. But, at the moment, this nation has callously slammed the door shut on all of them. It is shameful.
But there is a difference today as compared to when my grandparents came to America. My grandparents had no one to advocate for them; today’s refugees do. We have a voice. And we are ready to stand tall and say loudly that we will not allow our country to lock its gates, or scapegoat one religion or nationality. We are patriots who love this country. We are Americans who want our nation to be safe. But we are also ready to call out religious bias masquerading as national security as un-Jewish and un-American.
That is why I went to demonstrate in Elizabeth yesterday. I stood with members of our congregation and people of every race and religion who gathered at the Detention Center to listen to speakers, to hear from Senator Booker and to speak out. I recognize that we are a diverse community. I celebrate the fact that within the walls of our synagogue can be found a wide range of ideas and commitments. But the words in our prayer book are clear. The history of our community is well-known. And the teachings from Pirke Avot have never been more appropriate-
If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I. And if not now… when.
If not now… when.
I believe a challenge has been set before us. Will we stand with those who now stand where so many of our parents and grandparents stood? Or will we harden our hearts?
This is not a political issue. Nor is it a partisan one. This is a profoundly moral issue. And how we respond will determine who and what this country is to become.
I have been moved to see members of our community participate in the Women’s March. I have been inspired to see the commitment of so many to helping the family that arrived as refugees feel welcomed. I have been heartened to see so many demonstrating and speaking out in myriad ways on a variety of issues. Now more than ever I urge you to look carefully and critically at what is unfolding and, when so moved, find ways to put our values into action.