July 4th Reflections

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 17:06 pm

As we prepare to celebrate our country’s 235th birthday on July 4th, I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces of the “Torah of Migration”–-an excerpt from President George Washington’s letter to the leaders of the Touro Synagogue of Newport, RI. In his 1790 letter President Washington wrote:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

… May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

I can think of no better representation of the United States’ commitment to pluralism and a civic culture than this letter, and am convinced that this early statement from American history helped set the stage for the development and success of the American Jewish community. This approach is essential for us as we seek to be fully integrated Jews and Americans where our various identities complement rather than conflict with one another.

One additional aspect of President Washington’s letter is how it reflects the biblically infused language of the original letter sent to him by synagogue leader Moses Seixas–-an ancestor of HIAS volunteer Emma Lazarus who later extended this vision in her 1883 poem "The New Colossus." Lazarus, an exemplary spiritual descendant of President Washington, wrote:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

At HIAS, we seek to develop our programs to reflect the Jewish and American values found in the beautiful words of Washington and Lazarus–-none more so than our work on citizenship and civic integration. In 2010, HIAS was awarded a two-year Citizenship and Integration National Capacity Building grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Through this program HIAS is building the capacity of three affiliate agencies to offer citizenship education and civics-focused ESL and naturalization application services, and to be the premier Board of Immigration Appeals recognized and accredited immigration legal services provider for lawful permanent residents in their service area. The program has already made significant progress reaching out to vulnerable and underserved immigrant populations, including refugees and asylees with low literacy and low education, and helping our affiliates provide a continuum of services to refugees and immigrants from arrival to full U.S. Citizenship. Through this program, and many other integration efforts, HIAS is helping newcomers build their own American Dreams.

It is a great pleasure and honor for me to work with the dedicated professionals of HIAS serving across the United States and around the world, and to be a partner with a Board of Directors, Honorary Directors and other key lay leaders who passionately join with us to fulfill our core HIAS, Jewish and American mandate to welcome and care for the stranger–-Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

With the wisdom and eloquence of President George Washington and Emma Lazarus in mind–-and a firm belief in the vital work being done by HIAS–-I wish all of you and your families a happy and meaningful 4th of July.

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