Sermon on Remembering the Difficult Journeys
May 8, 2009
Rabbi David Kaufman
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, continues the explanation of what it means to be Holy. Specifically, it concentrates on the priests maintaining a status of purity. Emor also contains the liturgical calendar including all of the festivals. Missing on that calendar are two events marked in the Jewish world recently, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. I thought of talking about those modern Jewish holidays tonight.
I also considered talking about the hate-filled protest against the Jews and Gay and Lesbian community of Des Moines this week by a handful of crazy people from Westboro Baptist Church and about the fact that their pitiful protest paled in comparison to the opposition against it. Had we wished to allow them a modicum of attention, we could have arrayed hundreds of people standing on our side of the street, shouting in our support.
I thought about talking about the AIPAC Policy Conference and about the relationship between Israel and the United States today and the threats and challenges that Israel faces. I’ll leave that for some other time as well.
I actually began the day with the idea that I would discuss the dramatic changes that the financial crisis has brought to the Union for Reform Judaism and the threats that it poses to my beloved Hebrew Union College. I have spent no little time in the past couple of weeks working with other rabbis, lay leaders, and faculty members in the defense of the Cincinnati campus which was threatened with closure, but another thought came to mind.
I even thought of doing a sermon on the now widely circulating joke:
“They said that a black man would become President of the United States only when pigs fly and now, 100 days into his administration: Swine Flu!”
I thought to myself about all of the major changes that are going on in the world, all of the major issues, all of the sands that seem to be shifting beneath our feet. Then I decided to tell another story.
Dafer’s family’s story is like many in places where Jews were tolerated in the best of times and threatened during the worst. His mother’s family lived in Baghdad until the great Exodus of Jews from the Arab world to Israel from 1948 to 1952.
Once the nation of Israel was created, Jews living in Arab lands suffered tremendous persecution. The Iraqi government forced most of the Jewish population to leave the country. The majority fled to Israel but others went to any nation that would accept them.
Dafer was an exception. His mother had married an Iraqi Muslim and the government did not force them to leave. When the rest of the family was forced to flee with no notice, his mother and father were not, and did not find out that the family had gone to Israel until it was too late to keep in contact.
Why did they lose touch? Because anyone trying to reach out to someone in Israel from Iraq after that time would have been seen as a spy or traitor and been executed. They could possibly have contacted their relatives in other nations such as in Britain, but Dafer’s family didn’t have relatives or friends who could serve as bridge contacts with them to Israel.
Ammar, Dafer’s niece, relates in a letter that Dafer carries with him, that after the death of Dafer’s father in 1967, Farha, his mother, tried to reconnect the family with Judaism. The Baath party started to monitor them, no doubt wondering whether or not they were Israeli agents, and in order to protect her family, Farha had them once again stay away from the Jewish community.
After a long hiatus from Judaism, Ammar and Dafer’s family was emboldened after the 2003, US invasion to once again pursue rejoining the Jewish community. The guard at the Temple there told them that once there is a new government, they would reopen the Temple. Then new problems faced Dafer and Ammar’s family. The Mahdi Militia and Bader Militia, both Iranian backed organizations, found out that their family was Jewish and persecuted them, forcing them from their homes.
They ended up in Syria, where they sought out the Jewish community in El Hara El Yahodia, but the government of Syria had ordered the synagogue closed. Finding out that they were Jewish, the Syrian Intelligence Services then hounded them. Some Jewish people in Syria who heard of their plight then suggested that they escape to Jordan. The Jordanians refused to accept them because of Jordan’s own security problems with the Iraqis, so the family was sent back to Baghdad.
Back in Baghdad, the family was attacked by the militias that threatened them before. Two members of the family were killed and two others kidnapped and held for ransom.
At that point the family decided to appeal to go to Israel. They were eventually able to get to Turkey and Dafer made it to Des Moines, how and why I still do not know, where a Bus Trainer, someone who trains refugees in how to use the local buses to get around, brought him to Temple B’nai Jeshurun on a Friday afternoon.
When I arrived at Temple this afternoon, we had three guests. Two were from Lutheran Refugee Services and a third was an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who spoke almost no English, but knew enough to have his helper bring him here.
“We need someone who speaks Arabic!” Kathy, a volunteer at the Temple, told me as she spoke with the volunteers. “Arabic?” I thought. “Arabic?”
I thought of two people to call: my Sudanese friend, Francis, who works with Arabic speaking refugees, and Nashi K., who is a member of Tifereth. I called them both. No answer. Mark Finkelstein of JCRC helped me tracked down Nashi while I spoke with the aid worker.
While we were talking, Dafer, handed me the letter written by his niece Ammar, that told the story of their plight.
Then Nashi arrived.
I cannot begin to tell you just how strange a place Des Moines is. Nashi, as far as I know the only Arabic speaking Jew in Iowa, happens to also be a Baghdadi Jew and has relatives who may know Dafer’s relatives in Israel. He promised to speak to them about Dafer’s family. Nashi was able to talk to Dafer and to relate to him in ways that no refugee aid worker could. Dafer now had a Jewish friend and an Iraqi Jewish friend at that! Talk about Mazel!
Three weeks ago, we were visited by Shlomo Molla, a Member of the Knesset of Israel who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia. He talked of literally walking hundreds of miles to be able to be flown to Israel, to freedom. Two weeks ago, we heard from Marion Blumenthal Lazan about her journey during the Holocaust, eventually coming to this country. Hopefully, all of us have heard the story of our own Peter Pintus.
I was struck as I thought about all of these stories, just HOW easy, HOW good, HOW blessed my life has been and continues to be.
I live in a place where when hateful people come to protest against me because I am a Jew, more people come to my defense and virtually everyone considers the hateful people to be ignorant idiots. I live in a place that is not threatened by war or sectarian violence. I live in a place where a wandering Jew from a foreign land is brought to synagogue by helpful Christians wanting to aid him in his practice of Judaism! I live in a place and in a time when I truly need to seek out stories of those Jews who were not and are not so fortunate.
I truly need to remember. We need to remember.
It was not long ago that Jews faced tremendous discrimination in this country.
It was not more that two generations ago that Jews marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and sat with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at lunch counters where they were refused service and forcibly removed.
It was not long ago that virtually every country club not founded by Jews denied their admittance as members.
It was not long ago when indeed people would have thought that pigs would fly before America would elect a President from a racial minority.
It was not terribly long ago that in every Jewish gathering could be heard the accents of Eastern Europe. It was not long ago. But today, my friends, it is too easy to forget.
The stories of the journeys from oppression to freedom become almost mythical, something that happened THEN to THEM, not NOW and not to US.
This afternoon, I was reminded of just how special it is to live in this nation of freedom and security.
At the AIPAC Conference, I had the opportunity to hear from Clarence Jones, who was Martin Luther King’s attorney and a close friend. Clarence Jones related Dr. King’s story of his visit to a Conference with Conservative Rabbis in honor of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s birthday. Dr. King said that as he and Rabbi Heschel entered the room, the convention, 1,000 rabbis began chanting, “We shall overcome” in Hebrew.
The words are:
Anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir bevo hayom.
Ani ma'amin be'emunah shleimah, nitgabeir bevo hayom.
The last verse combining the principles of Maimonides with the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
“I believe with perfect faith that we shall overcome someday.”
I thought that it would be appropriate to conclude with those words.
Anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir, anu nitgabeir bevo hayom!
Ani ma'amin be'emunah shleimah, nitgabeir bevo hayom!
We shall overcome, but we still have a lot of work to do.