Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner Kol Nidrei 5779 Temple Shalom, Louisville, KY
From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
These words, written by Elton John and Tim Rice for “The Lion King,” came to mind this past summer. You see, in June, I had the opportunity to participate in the Education Conference sponsored by the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), the umbrella organization that offers myriad educational opportunities for our congregation and our religious school. In fact, the curriculum we are currently using at LBSY, and the scholar-in-residence that will come to Temple Shalom in March, and focus on intermarriage and interfaith relationships, both result from our partnership with ISJL.
After an informative and worthwhile conference, I left Jackson, MS and headed for home, with a layover in Charlotte, NC. My first flight was on time, so I figured I’d get some lunch and then board my connection to Louisville. Well, as they say, man plans and G-d laughs.
As it turned out, there was a lightning storm in Charlotte, which grounded all planes; you can imagine how packed the terminal was. I spotted one empty seat and made my way over to it. I quickly understood that I was seated next to immigrants who didn’t speak English. In addition to photo ID’s around their necks, two of them had white bags with blue lettering on them that said, IOM, International Organization for Migration, in both English and French.
A young woman, who worked for American Airlines, was doing her best to communicate with the family, but the truth is, they weren’t getting very far. I asked the employee about a translator to which she responded, “We don’t have anyone who speaks Swahili.”
Feeling frustrated for the family, as well as terrified for the young children – in light of what was happening at the time at our southern border – I reached out to two members of our congregation seeking assistance – Sheilah Abramson-Miles and Kandice Abramson. My hope was that Jerry Abramson, through his connections, might know someone who knew someone who knew someone who spoke Swahili, who could talk on the phone for a few minutes to help the situation.
In addition to reaching out to her brother, Sheilah also contacted congregants Kim Fry – who teaches ESL, and Brenda Bush, whose son-in-law teaches the same subject. I even reached out to Linda Klein’s brother, Robert. While no one had a direct contact, Catholic Charities was mentioned in a text. This led to my reaching out to Fred Whitaker, a teacher at St. Francis of Assisi. He successfully put me in touch with Hassan, a man in Louisville who spoke Swahili.
By the time this information arrived, I had just boarded the plane, but the door to the cabin had not yet been shut; so I approached the flight attendant and explained that I was trying to help an immigrant family who was also flying to Louisville – on a later flight – and I had found a translator for them. She said there was nothing she could do, even though she had seen the family herself. I asked if they could call the gate agent and pass along the phone number, so some communication could occur. Even an airline agent standing outside the plane said, “no.” Just then, the pilot appeared from the cockpit, asking what was going on. I explained how I was trying to help a family of 6, and simply wanted to convey a phone number so they could communicate with someone, which could be a source of comfort and help.
“Come with me,” the pilot said, and we ran together through the rain, to the terminal, where the gate agent informed me that my deplaning was a federal offense. “She’s with me,” the pilot replied. He then looked around the seating area and asked, “Where are they?” “They are probably still eating at the restaurant,” I answered, because someone had given them money for food.
Since the family was heading for Louisville, the pilot’s intention was to take them on his flight, so they wouldn’t have to continue to wait alone in the terminal. But since they were still eating, I gave the gate agent Hassan’s number and asked if she could call him when the family returned to the gate. I was led to believe she would.
However, when I landed in Louisville, and called Hassan, he said “No one called.” Feeling frustrated, angry and concerned for the family, I called Charlotte Douglas International Airport and asked to be connected with Gate 35C. When the gentleman asked what I wanted, I told him I wanted to make sure the family made it onto their flight to Louisville. He said for security reasons, the gate agent would not give me that information. He then ended the call by saying: “The terminal would close at 11 P.M., so someone would find them if they were still there.”
Needless to say, this was not comforting news. I went to bed worried about the three women, the elderly gentleman and the two young girls, whose whereabouts were still unknown.
But my husband, Lee, unbeknownst to me, took it one step further. He reached out to Brandon Coan, a Louisville Metro councilman. Brandon, in turn, referred Lee to Bryan Warren, Director of the Office for Globalization, who oversees efforts of the Louisville Metro Government to welcome immigrants to Louisville. Bryan then reached out to Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities Migration & Refugee Services.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt sad and disappointed, for despite a group effort to try to help a family in need, we did not succeed. Or so I thought.
A few days later, Lee and Bryan received the following email from Adrienne Eisenmenger, a manager for KRM:
Bryan, thanks for looping us into the conversation. Lee, many thanks to your wife for her kindness to these two families. They are KRM clients who arrived into Louisville late last Tuesday night (June 26) from Charlotte. They were a family of two and a family of four, but all of their travel from Tanzania to Louisville was together, thus I’m sure they could have been mistaken as one big family. I’m not sure what all happened while they were in the Charlotte Douglass Airport apart from the flight delays, but we are thankful for your wife’s wonderful care and concern for the family. They arrived in Louisville safe and sound a little after 11:00PM, and we had a team of nine waiting with welcome signs (and an interpreter) at the Louisville airport to greet them. I was able to be at the airport, and they seemed tired but relieved to have finally arrived. We had been worried about their flight due to the weather. They went home with their caseworkers and enjoyed a warm meal before getting some rest.
I’m happy to report they are doing well in their new home. Thank you so much for reaching out, and for caring so passionately for some of our newest Louisvillians!
When I learned that the family was here and safe, I was elated, relieved and grateful. And yet, I still felt something was missing – there was no goodbye handshake or hug, or wish for good luck. It was like a fairy tell that ended one scene too soon.
But there was nothing more to do; they were in good hands and that is what mattered most.
Why am I sharing this story with you on the holiest night of the year? Because we know what’s written in the book of Deuteronomy and in the Passover Haggadah: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there….” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
In other words, we, ourselves, were refuges. The Hebrew word for fugitive, o’ved, also found in the books of Numbers and Isaiah, is accurately translated as “refugee.”
In other words, we, the Jewish people, like the families who arrived this summer from Tanzania, know what it’s like to be refugees.
Our tradition is very clear on how we are to treat strangers, immigrants and refugees in our midst. In the middle of our Torah – literally in the center – we find parashat Kedoshim and the Holiness Code – which, by the way, we will read tomorrow afternoon. In Kedoshim we are told the following: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:33).
Our Torah reminds us 36 times that we are to be kind to strangers for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Our history has shown that we were not only strangers in Egypt; we were also treated as “strangers” – the other – throughout Europe and the Middle East, in South America and at times, even here in our own country.
Unfortunately, we know all too well the story of having to pick up and start over again; and as hard as that is, it’s certainly better than the alternative our relatives faced under the Nazi regime.
So now, literally now, we have the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of three of G-d’s childen, who also happen to be refugees. Ger’ez’igher, the father, nicknamed Gabriel, Kurtizan, the mother, and Diana, the six-year old daughter, who was born in Israel, by the way, have recently arrived in Louisville, making their way from Ethiopia to our city, via Israel.
What conditions led them to flee their homeland for Israel, seeking a better life for themselves? Most likely civil war – which just ended this past July – famine, religious persecution and possibly other conditions as well.
In Israel, Gabriel worked as a custodian at a hotel and Kurtizan was a waitress and cleaning woman at a mall.
So, how can we help them? What can we do? We can partner with KRM and sponsor this family for three months.
hat does this entail?
Financially, it means a one-time donation of $2500 to cover three months of rent and bringing them groceries a few times a month.
But beyond the financial component, there is what I consider the real meat and potatoes of sponsorship, the work that requires us to give of our heart and soul; to love them as ourselves, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
How do we do this?
-by visiting them
-talking with them
-giving them a chance to practice their English (which they learn at KRM)
-spending time with them and simply being a concerned presence
-going for walks or taking little Diana and her parents to a park or playground
The real commitment we need to make to them is our time, and letting them know we value them, and that they matter.
Moving to a new country is not easy; moving when you don’t know the language, when you don’t have extended family with you, and when you’re immersed in a culture that is very different from your native land – makes the transition even harder.
KRM will find jobs for the parents; we don’t have to take care of that detail. We don’t have to furnish their apartment; we are not even allowed to give them money directly. In fact, KRM does not want us to overdo it, lest we hinder their ability to become independent and self-sufficient.
So how do we move forward? All we need are 5-8 members of our congregation to form a team – with one person serving as the team leader – to do the things I just mentioned. Speaking Hebrew or their native tongue, Tagrinya, is not necessary for us to sponsor this family. Warm smiles, patience and your time are what they need most.
If you are interested in being part of this team, please contact me via email ASAP, after Yom Kippur.
So how did this sponsorship opportunity come about? I believe it was besheirt. Last Shabbat morning, around 12:40 pm, a time when we are often already out of the synagogue, a woman entered Temple Shalom. She was holding a folder in her hand and introduced herself as Maha, a caseworker for KRM. She also teaches at Jefferson Community and Technical College, where Michael Ginsberg, a member of Temple Shalom, is her colleague. In fact, it was Michael who suggested she reach out to us. Thank you, Michael, for making this connection.
Not only is this a wonderful opportunity for our congregants to join together, perform a mitzvah and engage in tikkun olam; on a personal level, I feel helping this family will complete the circle that began at Charlotte Douglas Airport, but was left unfinished.
As Elton John sings:
It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you and yours be sealed in the Book of Life.
Within 24 hours of delivering this sermon, I am proud to say that not only did we have a full team with a team captain, but we also raised the necessary $2500 to sponsor this family.