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Dear Friends,

HIAS, whose commitment is to “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee” has designated this Shabbat as Refugee Shabbat. (The organizations began as HIAS: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, but now welcomes all who have fled persecution.) I am proud that the URJ, the Reform Movement, is one of the major Jewish organizations partnering with HIAS.

In honor of Refugee Shabbat I will be changing my Zoom background to this.

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That is the Vaterland and, as I have previously shared, it is the ship that brought my grandfather Alexander Cohen to America.

I keep not one but two pictures of that ship in my office. One is a painting of the ship that my grandfather did shortly after arriving here. The other is an image from the New York Times of the ship after it was seized and renamed for use as a US troop ship for World War I. Both are daily reminders to me that my grandparents’ choice to leave everything they knew behind in order to seek a better life here in America is a profound gift they gave to my sister and me. And we reap the benefits of that gift each and every day.

During his Senate hearing last week Merrick Garland put into words my feelings about those pictures. He said,

“I come from a family where my grandparents fled antisemitism and persecution. The country took us in and protected us. I feel an obligation to the country to pay back.”

My personal history places upon me the same sense of obligation about which Garland spoke. But, our tradition wants us to understand that we should all feel that sense of obligation because, at some point, our ancestors were all wanderers. We all come from families who were refugees looking for a new home. And, whether we realize it or not, this obligation is reinforced each Shabbat when we recite Kiddush, the blessing over the wine.

As one might expect, the Kiddush begins with gratitude for wine.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

The blessing then expresses gratitude for the gift of the mitzvot, the sacred obligations that help sanctify our lives. It states,

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who finding favor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot.

In the following line the blessing references Shabbat directly stating,

In love and favor, You made the holy Shabbat our heritage as a reminder of the work of Creation.

But then the blessing takes an odd turn. It says,

As first among our sacred days, [Shabbat] recalls the Exodus from Egypt.

It makes sense for the Kiddush to speak about the wine, to reference our obligations to God and to express thanks for our Day of Rest. But why, one might wonder, does the Kiddush invoke the memory of the Exodus?

The answer is quite simple. Having been slaves in Egypt, the words of Kiddush remind us that our freedom brings with it an obligation to help others.

Which brings me back to my Grandpa Alex. When he arrived in America there was no one to help him set down roots. He had to do it all on his own. And it wasn’t easy. That’s where HIAS comes in. They help those who are fleeing persecution and looking for a better life.

Tonight we honor their work and recommit ourselves to doing what we can to fulfill the Jewish obligation to help those in need of a better life.

And we will have the honor of being joined by author and TSTI member Abby Sher and Paola Mendoza, a film director, activist, artist, author, and co-founder of the Women’s March. They will discuss the book “Sanctuary” and its relationship to the plight of immigrants. “Sanctuary” tells the timely fictional story of a dystopian America, a totalitarian regime, and a 16-year-old undocumented girl who decides to fight back…

It is a story that has been repeated time and time again in our community and in so many others.

I look forward to seeing you tonight.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen