HAVERHILL – The word “Hebrew” comes from a root that means “to cross over” or to “cross boundaries.” Ever since God told Abraham to leave his home and his family for a foreign land, the Jews have been wanderers who know all too well the difficulties of being immigrants and refugees.
On March 21, Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill will hold a Refugee Shabbat online through the online platform Zoom.
“Anybody here in the States, unless they’re Native American, came at some point from somewhere, and I think the more we can let that ground us, the more compassionate and better listeners we can become to other peoples’ experience of coming here,” said Emanu-El spiritual leader, Cantor Vera Broekhuysen, who was moved to host a service after she traveled to El Paso, Texas, and saw the dehumanizing conditions in which detained migrants were living.
“It reminded me very strongly that for me, one of the most important functions of religion is that it better fit us to care about what happens to one another and try to ensure one another’s well-being, because there’s a lot of injustice that we saw,” she said of her experience at the southern border.
The Refugee Shabbat service will include readings of testimony of children who been detained, interspersed with prayers and readings from Passover, Tisha B’Av, and the Holocaust to tie to the Jewish experience. The D’var Torah will be given by a man named Marius, whom Broekhuysen met through her work with the Merrimack Valley Interfaith Sanctuary Network. Marius sought asylum in the United States after his family was killed in his native Togo, but was detained. He is now free and living legally in the United States, and the Emanu-El congregation has worked hard to make him feel at home by inviting him into their services and their homes. After the Shabbat service, the congregation will throw a party to congratulate Marius.
Emanu-El is a Reform congregation founded in 1936 with a longstanding tradition of social action. Currently, congregants are volunteering with the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, collecting coats and cooking meals for a local homeless shelter, and participating in protests against current immigration laws. A few years ago, the congregation welcomed a family of Congolese Jews who had trekked throughout the Americas before arriving in Boston. The synagogue’s Chesed community helped them obtain jobs, health care, and education in their new country, and even though they now live in Brookline, the family still attends Emanu-El, where Wilson, the father, serves as gabbai.
The Refugee Shabbat is just one of many ways that Jews are responding to the immigration crisis. Others include the group Never Again Is Now, T’ruah, and The Joseph Project.
“There are so many Jewish groups involved in refugees and immigration issues in the United States. It feels like an explosion in the last couple years how immediately Jews have made the connection between how foreign immigrants are being treated in the United States and the kinds of experiences and treatments that Jews have had over the centuries,” said Broekhuysen. “There are very few spaces that I’ve been in the past few years where there wasn’t discussion about immigration … for me, that’s one of the geniuses of Judaism: that we keep remembering these stories each year and we keep accruing our own lived experience, and when we hear the story of slavery, that story of a narrow place where by God’s grace we went free, we say, ‘Alright, where are those other narrow, confining, restrictive places in our world,’ and try to help others break free from them.”
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