By Alexa Broida, URJ Mitzvah Corps, Director
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), we read of the Israelites’ turbulent final moments in slavery, and the beginning of their journey across the desert. Just as they’ve been granted permission to depart from Egypt, Pharaoh has a change of heart and chases them to the edge of the sea. Once they’ve rejoiced at a successful crossing, they find themselves without food or water. And so, the cycle continues, each triumph followed by a hardship.
We know that the experiences of refugees today can follow a similar track, ebbing and flowing between hope and despair. Fleeing one’s home, facing uncertainty, witnessing violence, living in poor conditions in camps, and experiencing a volatile global attitude toward resettlement, is a plight that we, as Jews, recognize only too well. We draw on our collective experiences to fight for the rights of immigrants and refugees worldwide.
When it comes to this perspective, our story and values seem to be at odds with our relationship to Israel’s government of late. Earlier this month, Israel’s Ministry of the Interior announced a plan to deport or imprison African asylum-seekers, primarily those from Sudan and Eritrea, by April. While proponents of the plan argue that it will reduce crime and blight in Tel Aviv, those who object – among them the El Al pilots who refuse to fly planes full of deportees – have named the policy as racist, immoral, and in conflict with our values as Jews.
Mitzvah Corps participants travel the world each summer to go beyond the headlines and meet the people and communities that others only hear about. In Israel, they have the opportunity to work directly with the same refugees who are at risk of deportation, hearing their stories, and bringing the value of welcoming the stranger, the one that we know so well, to life.
Regardless of political perspective on refugee resettlement at home or abroad, Mitzvah Corps gives teens a chance to use the power of our Jewish story, and the opportunity to build personal relationships with people who would otherwise remain strangers.