I have a confession to make. My great-grandparents did not come to America seeking religious freedom.
Their Eastern European homeland was certainly not hospitable to Jews; however, their motivation for coming to these shores was primarily economic. They were poor, had little means of support, did not speak English and lacked a secular education. They believed that America was a land of opportunity.
The report they heard that “the streets were lined with gold” was not accurate. It was true, however, that if you worked hard you could make a better life for your children.
My paternal grandfather scraped together some money, bought an old truck and traveled through the Berkshire Hills selling cattle to summer camps and resorts. My grandparents on my mother’s side opened a small dry goods business selling appliances and housewares to their fellow immigrants who worked in the Chicopee, Massachusetts, mills.
My parents were the first in their families to attend college. My mother is a retired teacher; my dad was a pharmacist.
My family’s story is not unique. In fact, it is quite typical. It is the story of American immigration. Though it sounds cliché, it is immigrants like my great-grandparents and grandparents, just like yours, who built our country.
I hesitate to think what would have happened had my great-grandparents been turned away from Ellis Island and forced to return to Europe. They would have somehow managed, at least until the rise of Hitler and the disaster that was to come in the 1930s.
Each time I stand before the open Ark and pass the Torah to a young bar or bat mitzvah, I say the same thing, “I hope you will live a life inspired by the noble teachings of our faith, lessons embodied in this sacred scroll.”
One of those commandments, welcoming the stranger, is mentioned 36 times in the Bible. It is one of the central mandates of our faith. It is also a fundamental American value.
As the late Ronald Reagan said in his final speech as president, “We draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world.”
Though highly politicized, immigration policy defies party affiliation — it is not about the right or the left, liberal or conservative. It is personal. We need to imagine our own immigrant ancestors — confused and frightened, standing in a crowded Ellis Island pavilion, their future in the hands of someone they hoped would be a sympathetic immigration officer.
It is hypocritical and unjust to say, “Today’s immigrants are not like us.”
It is a cynical claim that dishonors the legacy left to us by our own ancestors who worked hard, loved our country, fought for the freedoms we enjoy, and did their share to help make America great.
Rabbi Robert S. Goldstein is spiritual leader of Temple Emmanuel in Andover.