Jews know a lot about migration. From the beginning of the Torah, when Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden and made to wander, through the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their children to the stories of Joseph and his brothers to the story of Moshe to the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, there is no idea of a fixed, comfortable home.
The rest of Jewish history has reinforced that idea; for most of our people’s long story, home is what you have locked in your heart and soul and the few things that you can carry with you.
“The Torah commands us to love the stranger 36 times,” Mayor Michael Wildes of Englewood, who is an immigration lawyer, said. “Only once does the Torah tell us to love your neighbor as you would love yourself. That’s because we have to make a greater effort to reach out to the stranger.”
Mr. Wildes is going to draw on his vast experience with immigration law — and with the immigrants who turn that abstract corpus into stories of human suffering and resilience — and also his background as an Orthodox Jew as he discusses “Jews and Immigration: Lessons from Biblical Joseph to the White House” in Monsey for the Israel, Pearl, and Lila Stern Memorial Lecture on April 7. (See box.)
“I will explore the Torah’s experience with immigration and our legacy as a nation,” he said. “I will talk about opening America’s golden doors, using the life examples of our sages to determine the kind of example and position they would want us to take on the modern experience of immigration.
“I will discuss matters of personal asylum, and those people who have well-founded fears of persecution in their home countries because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a political or social group, or their political opinions,” Mr. Wildes continued. “I will compare it to Moses, who was a biblical asylum seeker, and ultimately felt comfortable living among the leaders of Egypt, which he did, and then how he stepped into a leadership role. That sets the tone for clients who I meet with who are seeking asylum under similar circumstances in the modern age.”
An example? “I had a client in 1994 who hailed from a wealthy Saudi family, who studied in the best schools and was given the highest diplomatic jobs, but couldn’t live comfortably knowing that his nation was involved in supporting terrorism, both domestically and internationally. His name was Mohammed al-Khilewi, and he had a conscience that made him put his own life in danger.
“In his government job, he saw evidence of Saudi support of terrorism; he knew about torture that had been committed, and the tracking of Jewish groups in the United States to create strife between Muslims and Jews here. And instead of being quiet, he risked his life, he went out, and he copied more than 14,000 documents in Kinko’s.” Mr. al-Khilewi was in the United States then, Mr. Wildes said; he was working in a high-level job at the Saudi embassy. “He brought us these documents, and long story short we were able to get him asylum and eventually U. S. citizenship.
“Asylum is a matter of controversy under President Trump, who wants to make it more difficult for asylum seekers,” Mr. Wildes said. “He even insists that candidates for asylum wait outside the country — that they wait where they are being persecuted, while their claims are being processed. This is unimaginable. They are fleeing countries where they are scared to death, and we tell them that they can’t come in, even temporarily.”
He also will discuss the phenomenon that Mr. Trump calls “chain migration,” he said; it’s really “a bedrock policy of family reunification. It’s well known that a person works harder if the family is there.” The use of such harsh terms as “anchor babies further inflames the important issues,” he continued. “Immigrants make many sacrifices when they leave home. They leave jobs and families; they don’t want to give up everything forever, while they work day and night to support themselves, they hope one day to be reunited with their loved ones.”
Take the biblical Joseph, Mr. Wildes suggested. “When he gets to Egypt he is a poor immigrant, but he is a smart kid and a good worker, and eventually he becomes the viceroy, where he saves the people of Egypt from likely starvation. Later he sends for his father and siblings, trying to reunite them.
“The Torah says that there were 70 people, and that is a lot of people. They wanted to be reunited.
“We need to balance our fight against terrorism and guarding our borders with an attempt not to separate families unnecessarily in the process.
“When you come here, you work hard, you pay your dues, you give back to the general society — then you should be permitted to reunite with your family, in our great tradition, the way our founding fathers saw it.”
He will “discuss our president’s obsession with the wall” that he wants to build between the United States and Mexico, Mr. Wildes said. “We see from his many comments and tweets that he claims that the wall will keep out rapists, drug dealers, and murderers. I believe that America should maintain a hinged door, ready to open to new opportunities and to close on those who would cause us harm.
“The truth is that the homicide rate is 44 percent lower for immigrants than for the native-born. Immigrants are people just like everyone else.
“The thing that strikes me in my daily practice is the biblical import of what I am engaging in,” Mr. Wildes said. “I’m not working just with files and papers. I’m working with people, real people who are on journeys, and those journeys often are reflective of the journeys our sages went through.”
Mr. Wildes talked about the immigration policies that force the separation of parents and their children at the border. “These policies will not stop families from crossing the border, but they will lead to more suffering,” he said. “We must not force these mothers to weep as Rachel wept for her children.”
Who: Michael Wildes
What: Will give the 22nd annual Israel, Pearl, and Lila Stern memorial lecture, this year on “Jews and Immigration:
Where: At the Community Synagogue of Monsey, 89 West Maple Avenue, in Monsey
Where: On Sunday, April 7, at 10:15 a.m.
And also: Brunch
For more information: Call the shul at (845) 356-2720.