We Are All Refugees: USCJ CEO Rabbi Wernick on Immigration Policy

Rabbi Steven Wernick

“My father was a wandering Aramean.”  (Deuteronomy 25:6)

 Well not my father; my grandfather.

 And he wasn’t an Aramean. 

 He was Russian. 

 In 1904, at the age of eight, my Pop Ben, his older brother and their mother Sarah were refugees to the United States. I know the story of their journey well as do my children, because I tell it every Passover when we get to this section of the Hagaddah.

You see, my grandfather had a scar just beneath his eye that he told us he got while crossing the border. To keep the Jews from escaping, or perhaps just to torment them, the Cossacks would take pitch forks and check that there were no people hiding in the hay carts. As my grandfather would tell it, he got hit just below the eye.

As a kid I thought he was a hero. Eight years old and he managed to stay perfectly still and escape the Cossacks to come to America.

As an adult, I understand that he was a hero, not because of the scar or its origin, but because he came here at eight years old without a single word of English and not two nickels in his pocket to flee persecution and build a new life for himself and his family.

One hundred and fourteen years later it pains me to think about how we as a nation are addressing the difficult challenge of immigration policy.

I can’t imagine what would have happened to my family if our country did not welcome the two million Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe or if my grandfather and his brother were separated from their parents upon arrival. 

I find myself contemplating this particularly as today is World Refugee Day, when we celebrate the strength, courage, and perseverance of those forced to flee their homes around the world.

In its original context, “My father was a wandering Aramean” is part of the recitation the Israelites are commanded to say when they bring the first fruits of the land of Israel to the Kohanim. But why, a year after settling the land, cultivating and farming it, are they still recalling that their ancestors were wanderers? 

The explanation is simple. These words create a habit of remembering that the land is ultimately not ours, it is God’s. And we who cultivate it should also cultivate a habit of humility and remember the wandering we experienced to get to this moment.

As Jews committed to an authentic and dynamic practice, we must remember that we are connected to communities beyond our own and that these connections strengthen us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

We, too, have wandered to get to where we are today, and now, as we engage in this important and complicated policy debate, must remember to do so based on our values and with a sense of humility. 

We are all refugees. 

We are all immigrants. 

Our ancestors were all wandering Arameans. 

Surely we are better than this.


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