Opinion

Embracing the Stranger: Communities must stand for justice, with and for each other

Vladimir Melnik/Shutterstock

Fifty years ago last week, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an impassioned sermon at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights. He railed against the horrors of the war then raging in Vietnam and spoke about the images of children being struck by napalm. I was there, in that church, for that speech – a signal event in the history of America.

And I was there again this week, this time with Rabbis, ministers, imams, seminary students, lay activists and supporters from 35 uptown organizations and religious institutions, as we marched from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) through the streets of the same community where Dr. King spoke. Fifty years later, children are again the victims of chemical war – this time in Syria – and vulnerable populations who used to be able to count on our country as a place of refuge are being stopped at the borders.

Once again, we must organize for racial justice, for religious tolerance and to underscore our faith-rooted commitment to welcoming the stranger. There is no more important step we can take now – in challenging times – than to stand for justice, with and for each other.

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The strength of our city is in its diversity, which is why at JTS we were compelled to organize the Standing UPtown coalition. We have seen that diversity is threatened by racial divisions in our communities, by insufficient attention to the problems of housing and education and criminal justice, by a rise in hate crimes and the spread of Islamophobia, and by the promotion of a Muslim travel ban. It is threatened by people who seek to divide us across lines of neighborhood, race and faith. 

These problems are distressing, but despair is not a strategy. When we are challenged we must stand up and speak out. What better time to do that than in this Passover/Easter season? What better way to do it than with people who share a neighborhood and are ready to work across lines of faith and difference? What better way to begin than by embracing each other?

“We cannot be fully free while others are not. We must be there for the neighbors we don’t know well enough, whether they are down the street or a few miles away or elsewhere in our country or on our planet. We must commit to work for their freedom.”

Jews are instructed at Passover to remember our forced departure from Egypt and to be there for today’s victims of injustice, fleeing oppression and seeking refuge. Our redemption is not complete as long as there are people suffering.

As Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, said at this week’s march, “We cannot be fully free while others are not. We must be there for the neighbors we don’t know well enough, whether they are down the street or a few miles away or elsewhere in our country or on our planet. We must commit to work for their freedom.”

We, the leaders and activists doing this work, 50 years in the making, often feel discouraged by policies and hateful rhetoric out of our control. In these challenging moments, we step back and remember that Moses had some of these same doubts and that it was Nahshon, one of his followers, who stepped into the Red Sea first. 

We each need to acknowledge our anxieties, and then move forward. We need to remember that we are not alone. Our liberation is bound up in each other; we are a people able to move our neighborhood, our city and our country toward justice. 

Ruth Messinger is a Finkelstein Institute Social Justice Fellow at The Jewish Theological Seminary and a former Democratic nominee for Mayor of New York City.

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