As a child, every Thanksgiving I would read the children’s book "Molly’s Pilgrim" by Barbara Cohen, that inspired the 1986 Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. Now, even as an adult, I refer to the book as a reminder of the true meaning of Thanksgiving in America.
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The children’s book and film tell the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant named Molly, who came with her family to America to escape religious persecution. Molly’s teacher assigns her entire third grade class to make Pilgrim dolls as part of their Thanksgiving project. Every other child brings a doll to school dressed in mostly white and black hats, colors, and cuffs – the dress that we generally associate with the Pilgrims of America’s Thanksgiving narrative. Molly, though, brings a doll to school, dressed in clothing associated with her home in Russia. She teaches the class that in every generation, in all places, there are pilgrims, immigrants who search for a new home, a new life, a new opportunity and a newfound freedom.
The traditional Thanksgiving narrative tells the story of a feast and celebration in Plymouth, now Massachusetts, in 1621 following a good harvest. The story, while poorly documented and likely inaccurate, tells of the Pilgrims and Puritans breaking bread with the Native Americans, who embraced them peacefully and taught them how to cultivate the land and survive the harsh winter, before these new immigrants turned around and later savagely slaughtered so many Native Americans.
The message of this story – true or not – is one of embrace. We embrace those who are new in our midst. We welcome them with open arms. We understand the desire – and God-given right – to be free and the journey that so many pilgrims take in order to be free.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would use executive action to reform immigration in the United States. Some may question the method of executive action, but attempts at real reform have been stuck in a gridlocked Congress for years. Regardless of the method, the Jewish community must support such reform. Such executive action extends temporary legal status to almost 5 million undocumented immigrants.
This is not granting citizenship. This does not give them a green card. However, this ensures that millions of parents are not deported and separated from their children who were born here and are citizens of this country. Additionally an estimated 330,000 dreamers,330,000 pilgrims, undocumented immigrants who came to America as children, will be eligible to stay in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The Jewish community is a community of pilgrims. The Torah (Deuteronomy 10:19) reminds us that we must embrace the stranger for we were once strangers. Our communal history, our communal narrative, speaks of wandering. We did not only wander for 40 years in the wilderness. We wandered in exile from country to country for 2,000 years before pilgrims, pioneers, returned to the land of Israel. And during those 2,000 years, we also became pilgrims in every country we settled. We were pilgrims at the turn of the 20th century that saw large waves of Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe to the United States. We were pilgrims when we left the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
Since we were all once pilgrims, we must embrace all other pilgrims, all immigrants who enter our lands in search of new opportunities and new beginnings.
Immediately after Obama made his announcement on primetime television, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of rabbis associated with the Conservative Movement, of which I am a member, applauded the announcement, saying that " Jewish people have benefited from immigration policies in the United States" and expressing hope "that President Obama’s Executive Order will spur Congress to create a more permanent immigration solution."
As a Jew living in America, I wrestle with which identity comes first: Am I an American Jew or am I a Jewish American? The truth is that both identities are intertwined. During Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to give thanks for our new beginnings in our land of opportunity – for we were once strangers in a strange land. This year, may we pray that millions of pilgrims, millions of immigrants, will be able to stay in this country that they call home. May we strive to break bread with them, too, for we all have much to be thankful for.