The Human in Every Stranger

Kutz 1By Miriam Chilton

On Hanukkah, we are commanded to place the hanukkiyah so it illuminates the public domain rather than one’s own home. In doing so, we demonstrate the importance of spreading “light” as far as we possibly can. The Campaign for Youth Engagement takes this commandment to heart every day, working diligently to reach young people with opportunities that embrace Jewish living, agitate for a more progressive society, and connect to Israel in meaningful ways. To do this work with impact we also need to remember our youth are often our teachers.

Anna Hirsh, a sophomore from Boulder, CO, is the winner of NFTY’s Wendy Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah Competition. She was drawn to the story of Ahmad Akkad, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus. Her d’var won 1st place a month before the November 13th Paris terrorist attacks shadowed our TV screens with dark headlines, igniting deeper discussion about sanctions and borders in US immigration resistance. This is how Anna began her entry:

Ahmad Akkad has a story. Desperate to escape the violence and war clenching its iron fist around his country, he fled the borders of his known world and began his arduous journey toward a new one. [He] talks about the voyage by sea in an inflatable boat made of rubber, how the boat, incapable of supporting the weight of him and over fifty others, capsized near the shore and sent them all tumbling into the waters off the coast of Turkey…

In her d’var, Anna ties the reality of Ahmad fleeing his homeland in search of solace in other countries, to the story of Rebecca in the portion of Chayei Sarah. She highlights that when Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife, encountered Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, in his travels, she not only offered him water, but took on the task of hydrating all ten of his camels. Anna concludes:

Rivka displays Audacious Hospitality toward Eliezer; she supplies not only what he requests, but what she knows he needs. [She] acts on a pure sense of chesed (kindness) when she chooses to see, rather than the stranger, the human in Eliezer.

“The Human in Every Stranger,” Anna’s profound title of her essay, made me wonder why there is moral outrage for some things, and not others. Eliezer could be the young Ahmad from Damascus searching for shelter in Europe. He could be a teen named Ezra Schwartz z”l from Massachusetts, studying abroad in Israel. The “stranger” can be a young person of different nationality or race, but also someone observing other religious customs, or possessing a different gender identity or sexual orientation. It could be someone with different physical abilities. It could be the teen who recently entered the doors of your congregation and is yet to be a part of the community. You and I could, and likely have been, the “the stranger” to others.

Particularly after witnessing acts of violence, we tend to close our doors with reluctance to welcoming. Because of fear, because of discomfort. Following her d’var, Anna shared some of her current thoughts about this:

We must not let our fear win … I am not saying that we should ignore the danger, because we shouldn’t. But we should not let it stand in the way of being welcoming and compassionate human beings. By acting as the Rivkas of the twenty-first century and practicing audacious hospitality, we are combating terror and violence with love and kindness.

This holiday season I would like to pose this vision: What if we cared more for the people who walk through our door, and the ones who walk beside it? What if we felt the same moral outrage when we witness the unwelcoming and rejection of human beings?

Our unique priority as the Reform Movement is to practice and lead audacious hospitality. It is not a temporary act of benevolence, but rather  a mentality and ongoing open tent policy of kindness. I think one way we can choose to heal our world this week and illuminate our surroundings with the light of our hanukkiyah, is to be welcoming. Open your congregational doors and share the joy of Hanukkah, with those of whom you share it every year, and those you may have not yet shared it with. Look for the human in your youth, whether it is a teen who doesn’t feel like youth group is the place for them, or a family who has yet to be invited warmly. Be sure to make it known loudly, brightly that they are.

A warm happy holidays from all of us at URJ Youth and my family to yours.

Miriam Chilton is the URJ’s Vice-President of Youth.

Cross-posted on the URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog