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National Refugee Shabbat
Our patriarch Abraham was mentioned for the first time in last week’s reading, Parshat Noach, but it is this week’s parshah of Lekh Lekha and next week’s parshah of Vayera which are the primary narratives dealing with his life. His life which is bookended by two identical phrases at its beginning and its end.
Lekh Lekha mi artzecha U mimoladetecha u mi beit aveicha (Genesis 12:1) ‘Go forth out of your country, and from your birthplace and from your family home,’ at its beginning. And Lekha lekha el eretz ha Moriah ve ha aleihu sham le olah al echad he harim. (Genesis 22:2) ‘Go forth to the land of Moriah upon one of the mountains of which I will tell you,’ at its end.
Abraham progresses from one Lekh Lekha to the other. Between the two he walks a long road, a life’s journey of having a home, losing a home and finding a new home. Today I want to tell you about another Abraham whose name is Guyo who’s first Lekh Lekha was from Ethiopia and second Lekh Lekha is here in Baltimore. We have come to know Guyo through our work at Gilead House. Gilead House is a partnership between ERICA (the Episcopal Refugee Immigrant Center Alliance) and St Mark’s on the Hill, which provides housing and other support programs for asylum seekers.
Several years ago we at Chizuk Amuno felt a calling to be more involved in the Lekh Lekha movement in this country. Many in our congregation expressed a desire to open our homes, our hearts and our community to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming strangers as first modeled by Abraham and Sarah with their tent that was open on all sides. The gifted Bible scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz wrote that “…the Torah cautions us regarding our behavior toward the stranger no less than 36 times, the most repeated injunction in the Torah. Empathy is an outgrowth of experience… We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land.”
So we did not want to wait for an opportunity to come to us we actively pursued the mitzvah to see where and how we could best do this work in our own Baltimore home. After a few difficult stops and starts we found this partnership with our Episcopal brothers and sisters in faith and have been creating relationships with the asylum seekers that are making a new home here in Baltimore.
Asylum seekers are in this country legally. They have requested asylum either at the border or when their visa expired. However, unlike refugees, they are not entitled to any government services. Gilead House found its name from the book of Jeremiah as it is meant to be a “Balm in Gilead,” a comfort in distress. For asylum seekers, housing is a real problem. The philosophy behind Gilead House is that if people have a safe and stable place to live they can begin to heal from the trauma that caused them to seek asylum. This will give them more energy to be their own advocate and thus increase their chances of being granted asylum.
Chizuk Amuno has been a supporter of Gilead House since almost the beginning. We now have two members on its Board. We donated mattresses and other furnishings. We helped clean the house to get it ready for its occupants. About a year ago Raymond moved in as the first resident. Guyo followed a short time later and then Bruno. None of the three men had boots or winter coats so we took them shopping. We provided transportation to English classes at Pikesville Middle School. We have donated food from our food drives. We have shared meals with residents. They attended the Yom HaShoah Commemoration last April when the Verdi Requiem was performed at Chizuk Amuno. We also took them with us when Chizuk Amuno went to the Oriole game in June.
Last Spring Guyo, a social work professor from Ethiopia, was awarded asylum. Then, just a few weeks ago, Raymond, a lab technician from Cameroon, was also granted asylum. For the time being Raymond and Guyo continue to live in Gilead House as they plan for the future. Guyo is working on bringing his wife and children to this country. Raymond is looking for a place to live in Bethesda, which is closer to his job.
We are fortunate at Chiuzk Amuno to be part of such an extraordinary community. Our vibrancy is seen in our school communities, in our large Shabbat community. Many classrooms are full of children studying Torah and math. Prayer and science. Our preschool was just voted Best in Baltimore. Already this fall over 400 adults have come to study with us and affirm their identity as lifelong learners. We have collected hundreds of pounds of food for donation to the hungry but when I think of our most profound accomplishments of the past several months, I think of Raymond and Guyo and the role that members of Chizuk Amuno, valiantly led by Margie Simon and Jennie Rothschild, have played in helping modern Abrahams through their Lekh Lekha journeys in finding a new home.
You may have heard talk of our living in a global society, or comments on how the world has become smaller. In Baltimore we have our own version of this so I won’t repeat the jokes we’ve all heard and told a hundred times. The midrash anticipated this global society more than 800 years ago in a book called the Yalkut in which the author imagined what God did with the dust of Adam’s body after his death, “God gathered the dust of the first human from the four corners of the world – red, black, white and green. Red is the blood, black is the innards and green for the body. Why from the four corners of the earth? So that if one comes from the east to the west and arrives at the end of his life as he nears departing from the world, it will not be said to him, ‘This land is not the dust of your body, it’s of mine. Go back to where you were created.’ Rather, every place that a person walks, from there she was created and from there she will return.” (Yalkut Shimoni to Genesis 1:13)
Every one of us is on a journey from one Lekh Lekha of our life to another. But for some that journey is farther and more treacherous. Let us do all we can to assist others in the journey as part of our religious imperative to welcome the strangers among us.
Rabbi Wechsler has touched the lives of many members of our community through her intellect, warmth, compassion and commitment to the ideals of Conservative Judaism. As the first woman to serve as rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, her impact and accomplishments are demonstrated in our successful b’nei mitzvah, adult learning programs, gemilut hasadim efforts, and many learning and life cycle experiences. Her communal work includes service on the Executive Committee of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Grant Review Committee for the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated, and the Teacher Certification group of the Center for Jewish Education. She has published sermons and opinion articles in The American Rabbi, The Orchard, and the New York Jewish Week. Debi received her rabbinic ordination, as well as an M.A., from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where she also served on the Board of Overseers of the Rabbinical School.