Returning from Israel on the 2017 URJ Board Mission last week, I met a woman giving out mishloach manot, gift baskets of food, at Ben Gurion Airport. This woman was Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of one of the three young men who were kidnapped and killed by terrorists in the summer of 2014. Rachelle, along with her family, chose to spend Purim at the airport giving out mishloach manot to strangers because she wanted her son’s life to stand for something. She wanted the world to know that Israel was built on the principles of unity, mutual responsibility, and a concern for the weak and the defenseless, rather than hate.
Throughout our trip, we witnessed many people working hard to advance a democratic and pluralistic Israel and honor her founding principles. We celebrated Purim at Kehilat Ra’anan, a vibrant Reform congregation in the city of Ra’anana. We participated in their carnival and the reading of Megillat Esther, led by both teens and adults in Hebrew, Russian, Portuguese, Romanian, and English. It was even more meaningful since just a few months before, this congregation was vandalized with hate graffiti against our Reform leaders in the U.S. and Israel. Kehilat Ra'anan was able to carry on with conviction, with the moral imperative that Israel is open to all.
It is clear that we need to work for peace and understanding not only in Israel, but also in our own country. It has been hard to make sense of the rise in anti-Semitism and divisiveness in North America and recent incitements against Jewish communal institutions, refugees, minorities and the LGTBQ community. We are faced with strong sentiments towards “the outsider.” That outsider is us when we encounter hateful language etched on public transportation and on our houses of worship; when we receive bomb threats in our workplaces and community organizations; when we have a growing fear of closed borders that won’t allow solace to those who need it most.
The call for freedom and justice feels timely both with current events and in the Jewish calendar. As we prepare for Passover, we are constantly reminded of the importance to commemorate the oppression that came before our liberation.
A growing number of “sanctuary synagogues” are offering housing on the congregation’s grounds and assistance to people who are being affected by the new U.S. administration’s immigration policies. In this recent article from Haaretz, one of our very own Reform rabbis, Rabbi Jonathan Roos from Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., speaks of his congregation’s decision to join the movement:
“Our story [as the Jewish people] is a story of refugees, so both for our religious values and our historical experience, we believe that this is one of the most important issues for us to be involved in today.”
The Reform Jewish Movement’s involvement is also driven by our youth. NFTY teens chose refugee resettlement as their study theme this year, and programs like Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest are spearheading social action by partnering with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to create a summer day camp for refugee children. Teen participants focus on integrating these children into their new environments. Past participant Jacob Rosenzweig said:
“Many campers come from families that fled places where people are being persecuted for their identities, be it religious, ethnic, or otherwise. As we heard their stories – stories of success, perseverance, and resilience – the refugees, so often talked about but never talked to, became so incredibly human.”
This spring, let’s continue to work for a pluralistic democratic state that welcomes all. Let’s remember to think back and appreciate the joy and freedom we have today, but let’s also remember to take a step back to look at our community – our immigrant brothers and sisters, our refugee neighbors – and find ways to help them, too, in finding liberation.
Rachelle Fraenkel asked me to share the mishloach manot with another person with love when I reached my destination. She also asked that I spread the message of unity – the triumph of good against evil. By sharing this story, I hope to honor Rachelle’s request and her son Naftali’s memory.