On dozens of occasions, the Torah instructs us to demonstrate compassion for the widow, the orphan, and the ger, the stranger, or, as often rabbinically interpreted, the convert. Moreover, the Torah, in mandating this additional level of care and compassion, roots this mandate in our historical experience as strangers in the land of Egypt. Our own national story must, the Torah teaches us, make us more concerned for other oppressed or vulnerable groups, and not, as some espouse, concerned only with our own suffering.
As such, we must abhor the current practice of separating children from their parents on the southern border of the United States.
Every administration has both the right and the duty to devise an immigration policy that balances sovereignty, security, and compassion, in accordance with our history as a nation of immigrants. And yet, in this complex equation, some practices are simply beyond the pale: ripping children out of the arms of their parents, in some cases, never to be reunited, is something that we, as Jewish people, described by our Sages as rachmanim bnei rachmanim, “compassionate people, the children of compassionate people,” can never accept. We, who read of Jacob’s decades of torment when Joseph is ripped away from him, could not but recoil at this policy.
Both my wife and I had grandparents who endured brutal separation from their own parents during the Holocaust, and our own familial narrative shapes our worldview to this day. Two years ago, on Yom HaShoah, I heard a lecture from Frieda Laub, a child survivor of the Holocaust, who told our group that when she was separated from her mother at the age of six, and spent the rest of the war hiding in a pigsty, she began each day with a Yiddish prayer, “Hashem, please let me see my mother again.”
It is particularly painful to me that one of the primary architects and vocal defenders of this so called zero-tolerance policy of separating children from parents, according to media reports, is a member of our own faith.
This past Shabbat, at our shul, in light of the summit with North Korea, I spoke of the evils of communism, an ideology responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, at minimum, over the course of the last century. I lamented how, in contrast to the brave and courageous stand that our government took in its policies toward the Soviet Union, especially, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the human rights of the suffering, often starving, people of North Korea were completely absent from these discussions.
I might have also mentioned, in that context, the systematic practice in communist countries of separating children from their parents, of breaking down the family unit. The parent-child relationship is a sacred one. The undying love a parent feels for a child is the very basis of all other social structures, such as community, and nationhood.
Immigration policy is complex, as stated above. A balance between competing values must be found, and this is never a simple task. And yet any society that tears children from the arms of parents, that instructs guards in these detention centers not to pick up or hold these children to comfort them, let alone one, such as ours, that once was proud to take in the poor and huddled masses fleeing evil dictatorships all over the world, has lost its way.
In our polarized climate, there are those who will willfully conflate a basic sense of morality and humanity with partisanship. And yet we know better. There is nothing partisan, or political, about decrying brutality.
To conclude with the words of Republican former First Lady Laura Bush, “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral.
“And it breaks my heart.”
Daniel Fridman is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.