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Toward Shabbat: Beshalah

On a weekday evening in June of last year, Judith, a BJ volunteer, and I had the privilege of welcoming a Guatemalan refugee family to NYC, whom we had committed to sponsoring through a partnership with HIAS. As we drove to the airport, Judith and I discussed how overwhelming this journey must be for the family, a young couple and their five-year-old daughter, as they started this new chapter in their lives. Our new guests had not been told what to expect, who would be meeting them at the airport, or where they would be going when they got here. Over the past six months, our BJ community has helped the couple secure jobs, enroll their child in school, learn English, move into an apartment, access social services, and more. The family has worked hard to establish themselves and to provide a new home and community for their daughter, even as they adjust to their new life in a new place. 

Not everyone who has sought refuge in our community has received the same level of support. Just this week, I stood with other faith leaders outside the Watson Hotel in midtown Manhattan after New York City’s government decided to move all of the migrants who had been staying there to a 1,000-bed, temporary shelter for asylum seekers inside Red Hook’s Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. The conditions at the Terminal are harsh: lack of heat, head-to-toe mattresses cramped on the floor, and insufficient bathrooms. Some asylum seekers have refused to go to Brooklyn and are instead sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Watson Hotel until the city agrees to accommodate them with dignified and humane shelter. As we stood outside hearing pleas from them for safe lodging and for the city to uphold its promises, it started to snow.

In just the year and half since I joined BJ as the Social Action and Social Justice Manager, our community has been called to respond to one humanitarian and refugee crisis after another. To name a few: 

  • The 2021 crisis in Afghanistan, leading to the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghan citizens
  • The outbreak of war in Ukraine, resulting in thousands of Ukranians seeking refuge in other countries
  • Buses of migrants from the Southern border, sent by unwelcoming politicians to places like NYC, overwhelming our already broken shelter system
  • A stagnant refugee admissions cap set by the Biden administration, with only a fraction of this number actually receiving resettlement services in the United States.

This week’s parashah, Beshalah, recounts the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, and brings us to the climax of the narrative with the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. 

I imagine the Israelites experienced much the same confusion and disbelief from their sudden change of circumstance as our Guatemalan family felt upon their arrival in NYC and as refugees the world over must feel today as they contemplate their new environments. 

The Midrash tells us that, as the Israelites stood trapped at the shores of the not-yet-parted sea with the Egyptian army at their heels, they were divided into four camps. There were those who said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea,” those who cried, “Let us return to Egypt;” some who argued, “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians,” and a group who said, “Let us pray to God.” Moses rejects all four options, not allowing the Israelites to surrender to fear, to go back, to wage war, or even to sit by and pray. Instead, God dictates a fifth alternative, instructing Moses: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they should go forward.”

What does it mean to go forward, into the unknown?

There are estimated to be more than 100 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homelands due to persecution and violence. Moving forward into the unknown is often the only choice for many refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and other immigrants who have fled their homes. They know not what lies on the other side of the border, what risks await them on the journey, or how they’ll be received once they arrive at the places they’re told will help them. And yet, move forward they do, entering new countries, cities, and neighborhoods in the process, with many winding up our new neighbors here in New York City.

As we confront a global, increasingly dire humanitarian refugee and migration crisis, and an influx of migrants within our own communities, we may feel helpless about how to respond. In the United States, despite administration changes on local, state, and federal levels, there still is no clear solution. Policies have shifted, and, still, these crises abound. As we stand on the shores of a metaphorical sea, none of the four approaches offered by the Israelites can show us the answer. 

Indeed, we must pursue the fifth optionto move forward with courage, faith, community, and purpose. The Torah instructs us 37 times to love the stranger. Let us embrace the “strangers” who have sought refuge in our communities, and begin calling them our neighbors. Let us speak out against policies that promote fear and separation. Let us show up to actions, stand in solidarity, speak out to our legislators, give of our time and resources in service. Let us practice speaking new languages, reach out to people who are different from us, and, most of all, let us welcome all “strangers” into our community. After all, we too have lived through an exodus and started over in a new land. God showed us a path forward out of Egypt, providing assurance, protection, and provision. Let us do our part to pave such a path to those who have entered our community seeking refuge, helping them find their own ways forward as they move uncertainly into a new land. 

Read more about our members’ experiences volunteering and advocating for refugees, asylees, and migrants, and for ways to get involved.