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For One Rabbi, the Personal Is Political When It Comes to Immigration

I must speak out against injustice—but if I speak up, will I be forced to leave the U.S.?

Rachel Van Thyn
January 26, 2015
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine)
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine)

During the past year’s High Holidays, I, like many other rabbis around the world, wanted to speak about immigration. I shared with my community my belief that we have forgotten our story. We have forgotten the sheer terror of leaving everything behind, moving to an unknown place and starting over.

We discuss Abraham’s Lech Lecha—his going forth to an unknown destination—as if we really knew what it meant. We sit around our Seder tables retelling the story of our people’s exodus from Egypt, but we are far removed from those passages in our Haggadah. We shut our doors; we hide behind legislation and bills; we talk about the fact that people cannot just come here without papers and expect to get in. But how many of our ancestors did just that? And now, many of the people who have come here to seek a better life in the past decades carry out the labor that we do not deign to do ourselves.

I didn’t think I was offering anything earth-shattering. But truthfully, I was scared to speak. In fact, I had nightmares the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Not your typical pre-High Holiday clergy nightmares. The one where you can’t find your sermon. The one where you sleep through your alarm. The one where you lose your voice the night before you have to chant Kol Nidre. The classics.

These nightmares were different, and their meaning was obvious: As a Canadian citizen living in the United States, I continued to be terrified that I would be forced to leave the life I’ve built over the past decade.

I was born in Canada, but my father and his family were not. After being liberated from Auschwitz, my grandparents Clara and Abraham found that when they returned home to Amsterdam, the same neighbors who had been entrusted with taking care of their valuables now denied having ever received anything. Impoverished, largely alone, and wary of their future in Europe, Clara and Abraham decided it was time to leave the Netherlands, to start over, and to make a new life for themselves and their children.

My family settled in Canada. I never really imagined that I would live anywhere else, until I started attending a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York. By the time I completed university, the desire to move to the United States was unbelievably strong. So, I connected my Judaism to my passions and was accepted into AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, in New York City. It was a full year of antipoverty work, while living in an intentional community of Jews, engaging in study, and meeting activists doing incredible things.

After that first year, I desperately wanted to stay in New York. I was lucky enough to find various jobs in the Jewish community, and it required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to ensure I had proper work visas. There were moments when I didn’t think I would be allowed to stay in the country; where my application would be rejected. Then I entered rabbinical school, and with a student visa you might imagine the border crossings would be simpler. They weren’t, for a number of reasons my lawyer has suggested I not publicly articulate. But let’s say this: When you are standing there, waiting for a stamp on your documents, not knowing if this will be the time you will be forced to leave behind the roots you’ve put down, the life you’ve built—there is almost nothing scarier.

I had hoped that things would be easier in my current job. I had somehow been blessed with an immigration lawyer, a member of the congregation, who helped me each step of the way. But the months leading up to this year’s sermon were fraught with difficulty, from papers that were delayed. We had little information about what was happening. I could not leave the country, and I was terrified. I had panic attacks. Even in my sermon, I couldn’t speak entirely freely, because I was afraid it would affect my papers. And as I write these words, I still worry that speaking openly could affect my path to citizenship. As we do with the Torah, I hope you are able to read into the gaps in my text.

People often make jokes when I talk about my difficulties at border crossings. “But it’s Canada,” they exclaim, as if we are the 51st state, or as if it shouldn’t matter because I look the same as they do. By which I think they mean: I am white and upwardly mobile.

It’s so much more complicated than that.

I hope someday to become a dual citizen. I am privileged and grateful to have access to legal representation, and to have a partner who would move back to Canada with me if it came to that. As it happens, we recently got engaged, and marriage will make things easier. But what if I hadn’t found love here? Before I had a fiancé, I had a congregation I loved. I want to stay here, a place I call home.

As a rabbi and as a Jew, I feel a responsibility to speak out against the injustices I see in this world. I read articles about my mentors and teachers getting arrested at protests. I attended the Kol Nidre service during Occupy Wall Street, but it was not a spiritual experience for me. I was too busy looking over my shoulder. If I am arrested for speaking up, will that affect my own future dreams of one day being a citizen?

I felt trapped, unable to speak out and pray with my feet the way I wanted to. So, instead I spoke from my pulpit, but it felt weak in comparison. I choked on tears as I read aloud Emma Lazurus’ words on the Statue of Liberty. I worried about being judged as an armchair activist. I was afraid, for I knew that either path—speaking out or remaining silent—could cost me.

I watch the debates on immigration reform quietly from my living room; I wonder how this will all unfold. When people joke that the United States is getting so terrible they will move to Canada, I consider the truth that my residency is not guaranteed. It would not be a terrible fate to leave, but ultimately I want to be the one who makes that decision.

When we point to the Torah and our laws that protect the poor, the stranger, and the widow in our midst, surely we too are speaking of the refugee seeking asylum as well. And yet we aren’t living up to those laws and the human souls they are meant to protect. Why do we teach that we are all b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, if we act as though some people simply don’t matter as much as others? This is a Jewish issue because it is a human issue; it is a Jewish issue because we are obligated to fix the brokenness in our world and to never stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds. And this we know: Whatever the consequences, we must speak out.


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Rachel Van Thyn is a rabbi, writer, and activist living in Brooklyn.

Rachel Van Thyn is a rabbi, writer, and activist living in Brooklyn.