Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the Rabbi David Lyon
How apropos that this week’s Torah portion is Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18ff), which includes the familiar phrase, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” justice, justice shall you pursue. A familiar commentary on the verse explains that the repetition of the word “justice” puts emphasis on its importance in a document that doesn’t have exclamation points. Furthermore, “tzedek” is at the root of righteousness reflected in acts of loving, kindness and charity (tzedakah). That’s why David Glosser’s recent article about his nephew, Stephen Miller, who is a Trump senior advisor, took the news media by storm. Glosser pointed an angry finger at his nephew for the direction he’s giving the White House on immigration.
But, Stephen Miller is not just a misguided “immigration hypocrite” as his uncle described him in a widely distributed and read article published in Politico.com; he’s Jewish! Mr. Miller falls into a category of other Jewish figureheads in positions of authority and power who failed to resemble anything one might have learned, gleaned, or understood from a Jewish upbringing. Surely, his uncle wasn’t the only one in the family with a keen understanding of the family’s past and its pain before arriving on these shores. The immigrant story isn’t unfamiliar to Americans, and Jewish immigration is the subject of early lessons beginning in Jewish religious school classes. Immigration is about being driven from one place to another. Jews were driven for centuries, and between 1880 and 1914, nearly 2 million Jews felt driven to America and its promise.
Miller ignores more than his own history and his own roots. He denies the origins of all Americans as immigrants who dislocated Native Americans from the land they tended for ages in order for us to be at home here. Has Miller read Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky or Charles Angoff’s When I was a Boy in Boston or even Herman Wouk’s Inside, Outside? Had he had read them before he read his daily briefings, he would have learned that even Jewish immigrants told half-truths at Ellis Island, but also the unbelievable stories of desperation and hope. I strongly doubt that Miller has ever heard of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), founded in 1881, or other immigrant aid organizations that helped Jews, in particular, but also others who had nowhere else to go. They advocated for housing, provided education, and prepared newcomers for their new land. He likely knows nothing about Jacob Riis, who was a Danish immigrant, social advocate and photographer whose photographs of tenement life on the Lower East Side of New York City persuaded an otherwise reluctant Congress in Washington D.C. to pass legislation for better housing and improved conditions.
Miller’s uncle is ashamed of his nephew. Shame can be a great teacher. Shame can strike a chord in one who is tone-deaf to life’s challenges and people’s suffering. It might awaken Miller to the power he really has to transform long-standing and intractable issues of immigration reform with compassion and empathy that begins in his own family’s story.
Oh, to be Stephen Miller’s rabbi at this time of year. This is the Hebrew month of Elul, the month that precedes Tishrei, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance. What I would like to teach him in books, diaries, movies, and personal accounts. But, alas, we are all his people and he is one of us. What role can the Jewish community play besides forwarding his uncle’s article on social media? It’s time to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform; it’s time to deluge Stephen Miller with our Jewish stories and his own; or maybe, it’s time for some Jewish tough-guys (we have a history of them, too) to put their arms around Miller’s shoulders and show him how nice Jewish boys behave, especially when they make it all the way to the White House.
The New Year, even for him, has to be about more than apples and honey because they are just symbols of what really is at stake. A sweet New Year depends on our deeds of justice and mercy, the same qualities with which God judges us. Just one more thing: if you see Stephen Miller at High Holy Day services this year, make sure he’s not just moving his lips.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.