The exodus from Egypt

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


June 28, 2012

The exodus from Egypt is the bedrock of the Jewish narrative ­ - only upon escaping Pharaoh’s lash, did we embark on our journey to the Promised Land. We’re enjoined to never forget the experience of being strangers in a strange land and to translate that awareness into compassion, “for you know the feelings of a stranger,” we read in Exodus.

But of course, the Jewish people needn’t look to our sacred texts to be reminded of our immigrant loyalties - ­ we can look to our experience. For centuries our story has been one of movement, fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. For centuries we sought hearth and home, and to the extent that our fortunes have changed, it’s within living memory. We know what it is to pursue a better life across a foreign border; we know what it is to be torn from our families.

Which is why immigration reform is a Jewish issue par excellence ­ - and one with which our Jewish community must engage with greater urgency, clarity and focus.

The recent Supreme Court ruling striking down most of Arizona’s deplorable immigration law left intact the so-called “Show Your Papers” clause ­ but also left open the possibility of revisiting the provision down the road. We must stay dedicated to this cause.

Recently, President Obama took a step that shows that he understands that a leader must keep his mind on the long view: signing an executive order to prevent the deportation of some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. These young people are eager to be contributing members of their society, and the President acted to protect them from being forcibly removed from the only home they’ve ever known.

The President exercised his executive authority after three years of enforcing the law of the land on deportations, fortifying our border and hoping that early and robust Republican support for immigration reform would lead to Congressional action to provide redress for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants living here through no fault of their own.

The President’s decision to act now seems to reflect a patient approach, a style that may at times be in tension with the kind of unceasing effort we must apply to solve vexing issues; knowing that only by constant advocacy will we move closer to justice.

But philanthropists committed to social change must marry these two paths. We must take the long view and support unceasing efforts.

Change of such magnitude is never easy, and it rarely comes quickly, but it’s important to remember that it does come. Just ask Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa, and Juan Rodriguez, four undocumented students who walked 1500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC in 2010.

They called their walk the Trail of Dreams, and they risked arrest and deportation to bring greater public attention to an injustice that plagued thousands: having made good on the American Dream by going to college, they lived in constant fear of deportation because of their immigration status.

The walk was bold and risky (we were one of its funders), and we saw last Friday that, along with the actions of countless other activists - ­ it worked.

Before last week, it might have been tempting to view the work of immigration rights advocates with skepticism. We might have lamented the apparent futility of a movement that’s seen little but setbacks in recent years. Now we are reminded just how important slow, steady efforts are.

For those of us who fund social change, this reality should serve as a check on our hubris. It’s vital that we take the long view, providing ongoing support to efforts such as the Trail of Dreams, Citizen Engagement Lab's “” campaign to amplify the Latino voice in civil life, and the work of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to keep these issues front and center. These are the building blocks of our next success.

If we were to check for a quarterly return on our philanthropic investments, our funding wouldn’t seem to yield very much ­ but the President’s policy directive revealed the folly of such thinking.

After years of effort a genuine victory was achieved, with patient philanthropic investment at the core. That long-term investment is helping our nation remember people from all over this planet come to America because they believe in this country’s promise and want to be part of making it great in their generation.

Much work remains, however  -­ work we believe to be central to the ethos of the Jewish people. In a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, some 70% of American Jews said that “welcoming the stranger” is an important value, and that furthermore, the immigrant experience is an important influence on their political beliefs and activities. And while we can applaud these attitudes and the increasingly positive view many Americans have of immigrants, that doesn't answer the question of what our nation’s policy should be.

As a people who have paid the ultimate price of closed borders, we should always be on the side of greater opening, but that still leaves a lot up for debate. A robust DREAM Act that provides these young people with a pathway to citizenship would be a good first step. A program that helps us effectively recruit talent from all over the world, welcomes those innovators to work in our private sector to spark growth, and helps them call this country home would be a great complementary step.

Ultimately we must pass comprehensive immigration reform to establish a common sense policy that meets our needs and matches our ideals.

For those of us in philanthropy, we must invest in effective contemporary solutions and we must take the long view; remembering in each generation we must forge a more perfect union.



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