Open Roads and Open Doors (Kol Nidre 5779)

There is a name I want you to remember, a name that perhaps you have not heard before, a minor player in a larger drama, a person whose seemingly banal insignificance is what makes her so important. I want you to remember the name Helen Roseland, who was the assistant postmistress in Eagle Grove, Iowa 80 years ago.

I did not know the name of Helen Roseland before this summer, nor did I know where Eagle Grove, Iowa was located. I probably still couldn’t point it out on a map.

So who was she? Her story begins much farther away in Vienna, Austria. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria, and with it came the Nazi program of Aryanization. Anti-Jewish actions began immediately, and on March 12, 1938—the day of the annexation—Franz Goldberger, a Jewish professor of business, lost his job.

Without income, family, and prospects in Austria, Goldberger sought to emigrate to the United States. However, he would need a sponsor, someone to sign legal documents saying that they would take responsibility for him and guaranteeing that he would not be a financial burden to the country. And unfortunately, Goldberger did not know anyone in the US.

So he began to write letters, letters to strangers, names he found in directories of professional associations of which he was a member. He sent letter after letter asking—pleading—for assistance. He included his resume which outlined his professional credentials and experience, but also offered that he would be willing to do any type of work. In 1940 one of his letters found its way to Hazel Hostetter, a teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She could not sponsor him herself, but she had a friend, Helen Roseland, who might be able to.

And so it was Helen Roseland who agreed to sponsor Franz Goldberger, a man she did not know but whose urgent pleas for aid found their way to her. Unmarried and without much money, she did have 160-acres of land in her family that she hoped would be enough. With help from the American Friends Service Committee, she submitted to the US government an affidavit, tax returns, letters of recommendation and other information in order to sponsor Goldberger. She committed her resources, her time, her money, her legal status to help a Jewish man she did not know immigrate to this country.

I learned this story this summer, when I was in Washington, DC at the United States Holocaust Museum, visiting the new special exhibit called “Americans and the Holocaust.” This exhibit, several years in the making, takes an in-depth look at the actions, reactions and inactions of the United States in response to the plight of the Jews in Europe during World War II. Some of these stories are well known, like the 1939 journey of the St. Louis, the ship of over 900 German Jewish refugees that was not allowed to dock in the US and whose passengers were forced to return to Europe. Some, like the story of Franz Goldberger and Helen Roseland, are less known. But the underlying theme is that while the specter of Nazi Germany swept over Europe, which as we know resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews, America fell short in its ability to offer refuge and to save them.

The Holocaust Museum was but one stop of a larger journey my family and I took this summer, a cross country road trip with social justice as its theme. It was a journey of 7600 miles, but in many ways much longer than that, it was a journey through time that stretched to the beginnings of our country’s founding through the present day, a journey through some of the more difficult parts of our nations’ history.

The genesis of our trip began with a plan to attend a Jewish spirituality retreat that was to be held mid-July at a retreat center about an hour outside of Washington, DC. Since Yohanna and I were both interested in the retreat, we thought of bringing our kids along, who could visit with my parents who live in Bethesda, MD, outside of DC. And then our plans slowly morphed from flying cross country to driving, making an adventure of our trip and taking the opportunity to do something that we had very much wanted to do, something that the times we are living in demand, something that we hoped would provide insights and foundation for ourselves but especially for our children—to do a tour in the American South, visiting museums and historic sites associated with the Civil Rights Movement.

We mapped out a route and identified the civil rights sites, museums and memorials that we wanted to see. And while we initially focused on African American history, as our route came into focus we began to add stops to take in other important parts of the American story that we need to know: we planned a visit to a WWII Japanese internment camp in Idaho, a Trail of Tears site in Missouri, the Holocaust Museum in DC. Along the way we added sites including the Arab American National Museum and ones related to LGBT history, including a memorial bench in Laramie, WY for Matthew Shepard, a gay man whose murder sparked new attention to hate crimes.

It was a social justice themed road trip, 3 1/2 weeks in total. I jokingly called it the “evil side of American history tour.” In describing the trip to someone before we left they said, “and you are going to go to Six Flags, right?”

And yes, we did have fun. We saw a lot of family scattered across the county, we did some hiking, ate great regional food wherever we were, explored other museums, found some quirky roadside attractions, and watched as this vast country’s diverse landscape unfolded before our eyes.

It was an incredibly powerful trip on so many levels. It was a shared family experience to a part of the country that none of us had been to before. It was a shared learning, as each one of us in our way absorbed information and experience. Yohanna and I watched as our kids inquired and investigated, knowing that the large amount of information they were being exposed to would be something that hopefully they would continue to draw upon as they move along in their life’s path. We blogged about it as we went, but it is the type of trip that will remain a touchpoint as we continue to process it and make connections.

For ultimately we took this trip because we wanted our past to inform our present. Indeed, one stop we made, originally unplanned, was in Charlottesville, VA where just last year white supremacists shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans marched through town. One counter-protester Heather Heyer, was killed when a car ran into a crowd. We saw the street where this took place, now marked with makeshift memorials and a renamed street sign.

The issues that haunt our country’s past—racism, xenophobia, oppression, anti-Semitism, exclusion, relocation, violence—are issues that also inform our country’s present. We took the trip in order to commit ourselves to ensure that they do not inform its future. We took the trip to commit to a deeper understanding of power and privilege, oppression and justice. We took the trip to visit where our ancestors lived, worshipped, organized and died. We took the trip to give honor to those who came before in order to be inspired to act now. It is a trip I would recommend to anyone for the same reasons.

And we took the trip consciously as Jews, as rabbis, and not just by visiting the occasional synagogue and checking out the Jewish deli in Omaha, NE. We took the trip as Jews to answer for ourselves that famous teaching of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

And I was uplifted to hear that we as a community here did not wait until I got back from my trip to offer one answer to these questions. For while I was on my trip, I was very happy to learn the Board of Temple Beth Hatfiloh accepted the proposal of our Immigration and Refugee Task Force to become a Sanctuary Congregation. That we, as a congregation, as a Jewish community, commit to work for immigrant justice, up to and including offering physical sanctuary as needed to our immigrant neighbors.

I’m actually glad I wasn’t there for the Board meeting, because this step is not about me, it is about you. It is about the deliberate process that got us to this point, a process that engaged the entire congregation. A thoughtful process that considered all contingencies, that was realistic and pragmatic about the risks, that resulted in stronger relationships among faith communities. A process that was begun without a foregone conclusion, but one that was honest, open, trusting, and compassionate.

There was something intuitive about this process that I felt privileged to watch happen. For with everything that is happening in our world these days, there could have been so many issues that rose to the surface for us, so many actions we could have taken, that we could have coalesced around. And many things are happening. And among them, members of this congregation rose up and said that this issue, the issue of immigration, is one that we, as Jews, must address.

While we didn’t visit any explicit immigration sites per se on our trip (though close was Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah, the site of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was largely built with immigrant Chinese and Irish labor) it was at the Holocaust Museum that we confronted this issue most starkly. The story of Helen Roseland from Iowa and Franz Goldberger from Austria is but one narrative, but we know this story did not begin with the Anschluss in 1938, it began in the United States even earlier. Fourteen years earlier the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which both excluded all immigrants from Asian countries, and severely limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The bill, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, imposed a 2% quota on nationalities based on their population as of the 1890 census. Over 2.5 million Jews had immigrated to the US since the 1880s. After 1924, two decades before the Holocaust, this effectively stopped.

And lest you think that attitudes of exclusion, of racism, that led to this bill are confined to somewhere else, the South or those other traditional red states, Congressman Albert Johnson, who was the principle sponsor of the Johnson-Reed Act in the House of Representatives, Congressman Albert Johnson, who was head of the Eugenics Research Association, Congressman Albert Johnson, who called Jews “filthy, un-American and often dangerous in their habits,” Congressman Albert Johnson represented the third district in the State of Washington.

We as Jews in the State of Washington have a double burden and obligation to remember America’s restrictive immigration policies and how they contributed to the high death toll in the Holocaust.

And the theme of closing doors, anti-Semitism, forced migration and expulsion is not confined to this past century. Much of Jewish history is defined by this movement, our fates at the mercy of the whims of ruling powers. And our most sacred text, the Torah, speak of this as well, how we have been at the receiving end of this attitude since ancient times. I have spoken of the grand story of the Exodus, the liberation from Egyptian slavery that we recount each year on Passover, as a story that informs this perspective, as not only a story of personal and societal transformation but as a story of refugees. But there is another story, a minor story, that rings even more true.

In the book of Numbers in the Torah, after the Israelites left Egypt, and as they are wandering in the desert on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land, they come to the land of the Edomites. The text in chapter 20 of Numbers describes:

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to God, who heard our plea, and sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory.  Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory.”

But Edom answered him, “You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword.”  “We will keep to the beaten track,” the Israelites said to them, “and if we or our cattle drink your water, we will pay for it. We ask only for passage on foot—it is but a small matter.”  But they replied, “You shall not pass through!” And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed.  So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel turned away from them. (Numbers 20: 14-21)

Lo ta’avor–“You shall not pass through,” they said, despite the pleas of hardship, despite the history of oppression that brought Israel to the southern border of Edom. “And Israel turned away from them.” Closed borders then, closed borders now.

The issue of immigration is one that has particular resonance for us as Jews, both from our mythic history and our recorded history. Offering sanctuary—providing safe space and refuge—is a unique step that we can take as a faith community and as Jews, to aid a neighbor in need and bring attention to the issues of immigrant justice.

I know that there are those who are wary of us taking such a step as a congregation, that it is an unnecessary mixing of politics and religion, or who feel it is an unnecessary risk that we as an already vulnerable Jewish community should not be taking. I hear and understand these concerns.

In reflecting on them, I think about my own journey. One of the questions I’m often asked is, why did I become a rabbi? And it is an interesting question to answer now, because the reasons that brought me to the rabbinate are different than the ones that keep me in the rabbinate. I originally became a rabbi because I loved Jewish community and Jewish tradition, because I had meaningful experiences as a child and young adult, and wanted to be able to bring that to others and to stand with people during important moments in their lives. I was called to the rabbinate, as it were, by the Jewish community.

What sustains me, though, is a sense of spirituality that pervades both the intimate and the public. I know it sounds funny to say that it was not spirituality that brought me to the rabbinate, indeed, I only discovered it right before, and during rabbinical school. I was able to find a spiritual lens to apply to those important personal moments shared with others, the liminal moments that bring about personal transformation.

And at the same time, it was only since serving as a rabbi did I learn what power we have to bring to social change. Becoming involved in our local community, I have come to see that religious community has a particular moral message to bring to bear on issues of the day. Religion provides a vision of a world that is greater than any one individual, a world that while imperfect strives for perfection. In response to a politics that promotes winners and losers, self-interest above all, market forces over human needs, I have learned that religion offers a different answer. For me, who was brought up with an affection for the institutions of government but not necessarily an appreciation for the power of social movements and social change, this was a new learning.

I now find the spiritual moments in the small, close interactions, and I find the spiritual in the large movements for social change. Judaism pervades both the small and the large, the micro and the macro. As we read in the liturgy in the Unetaneh Tokef over these High Holidays, “as the great shofar is sounded, the still small voice is heard.” It’s both at the same time. Our sacred scripture is a text of personal transformation and of communal transformation. I have tried to create a sacred Jewish community that honors both, and it isn’t an easy ask at times, to invite you to hold multiple visions at the same time of what community could be, to make space for others while claiming space for yourself. To ask: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

It has always been my hope that our Jewish community, as a smaller Jewish community, is one that is as open, as inclusive, as welcoming as possible. And I have learned over my time that means being open to different spiritual expressions. For some, their authentic spiritual expression is one of prayer and reflection, for some it is history and community, and for some it is social justice.

I also believe that if you look into the faces of a spiritual community and only see like-minded people looking back at you, then it is not a true spiritual community. Spiritual community forces you to grow, to change, to question, to explore. It involves taking a risk by showing up. Spiritual community is both upsetting and comfortable, engaging with both life and death, past and future, vulnerability and strength. There is a place for all of it, and all of you.

On the same day that the Board met and we as a congregation made the decision to open up our doors to immigrants, opened up as it were as Scripture says “the King’s Highway,” allowing those in need to pass through, I was on a different King’s Highway, a Highway of King. Dr. Martin Luther King. On that very day we traveled Highway 80 in Alabama, the highway that connects Selma and Montgomery. The highway that was the path of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, when in 1965 marches were held on the state capitol building to demand voting rights for African Americans. Those who marched began at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, passed through downtown across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and walked the 53 miles to Montgomery. On our road trip we took the opposite direction, as we were coming from Atlanta in the east, we visited Montgomery before driving west to Selma.

After a day of touring in Montgomery, including the new Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the victims of lynching, both of which are a must see, we arrived in Selma. And after dinner, as the sun was setting, we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life.

It is one thing to read about it in books, or see movies, it is another to walk in the footsteps of those who came before, who challenged a system, who put their bodies and lives on the line. It made the past come alive, just as, when I have visited Israel, the landscapes of the Torah become real and tangible.

And the crossing itself was a ritual, a holy act, of connecting with a deeper truth that goes beyond words. Like eating matza at the Seder to relive the experience of poverty and slavery, walking across the bridge brought up the feelings of fear and hope, defiance and justice that is associated with that place. Those who marched also took a risk, standing up to an unjust system. Those who marched in Selma were also met by closed doors, by blocked paths—the Alabama State Patrol and deputized civilians acting as the Edomites who turned away those who sought a safe passage to freedom.

There were actually three marches in Selma: the first march, led by John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams, ended in violence and beatings at the hands of the State Patrol, it is known as “Bloody Sunday.” The second led by Martin Luther King, also threatened by law enforcement, went halfway up the bridge and turned around. The third was successful in its goal, and ended three days later on the steps of the State Capitol building  in Montgomery where King addressed the crowd and said:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?…” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow…

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long. “If not now, when?”

We have answered the call of Hillel. We have made the commitment as a congregation that just as we are open to each other, we will be open to others. We pray for strength, for vision, for cooperation, for mutual love and support as we take this step.

We bring to this pledge what we all bring to this day of Yom Kippur, and to everything in our lives. A humility to know that change must happen, a vulnerability to admit that there is brokenness in ourselves and in the world, a commitment to challenge ourselves to do what we need to do in order to make the broken whole, and the risk that is living life itself. This is teshuvah. This is what it means to turn.

Helen Roseland from Eagle Grove, Iowa, also took a risk to stand up to an unjust system. The same year she received the letter from Franz Goldberger, in 1940, she sent her paperwork to the US Consulate in Vienna and the State Department. While waiting, Goldberger was arrested and sent to a labor camp. Upon his release several months later, he discovered that US government regulations had changed and had become stricter. He needed a second certified copy of the affidavit, which Helen sent.

Helen collected $425, the equivalent of $7,000 today, using her own money and donations from others, to buy a ship ticket for Goldberger from Spain to New York for June, 1941. For unknown reasons, he never made it on the ship. Later that year the US Consulate in Vienna closed, and with it, any channel that could have brought Franz Goldberger to the US. In May, 1942 he was sent to Majdanek concentration camp and three months later, he was killed, a victim of Nazi policies and restrictive US immigration laws. Helen Roseland, who gave what she could to help a Jewish man she had never met, died never knowing what happened to him.

On Yom Kippur, we say the gates of heaven are open to hear our prayers. This Yom Kippur we also open our hearts, we open our hands, and we open our doors.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

You can see pictures and read the story of Helen Roseland and Franz Goldberger on the website of the Holocaust Museum.

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