In 1654, the first Jews arrived in what would become the United States. Fleeing the persecution of the Inquisition and its long arm in South America, they came from Recife to New Amsterdam.
Peter Stuyvesant, then governor of the colony, ‘welcomed’ them with bigotry and fear-mongering. He informed the colony’s directors that these new arrivals were “repugnant”. Our ancestors were - he told the community - a “deceitful race” that should “be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”
Others – including some of Stuyvesant’s bosses back in Holland - saw the merit of welcoming these refugees, organizing to pay for the release of their possessions, to help them on their journey to establishing their community; one that would, of course, go on to become the most vibrant Jewish community in the history of our diaspora. They have been joined by the generations of Jewish refugees over the centuries since, and have given so much more back to the city of New York and to our nation than was ever given to them in those first months.
Since the very dawn of the American Jewish story, we have experienced fear mongering directed at us, directed at the very idea of us, and of others who, like us, arrive here as refugees and asylum seekers.
I’ve been thinking about Governor Stuyvesant as events developed this week here in Massachusetts. On Sunday, as we marked and mourned the attack on our nation 21 years ago, three masked cowards stood on a bridge in Saugus with a sign blaming Jews for 9/11. By mid-week, I was getting calls because the anonymous cowards behind the Mapping Project continue to use their Twitter platform to amplify their hateful website and re-post its content targeting our local Jewish community.
And on Wednesday night we all learned about how some 50 migrants - who arrived in this country seeking the same American opportunity and freedom as our own ancestors – were herded onto a plane by the governor of another state, and cruelly deposited on Martha’s Vineyard without any advance notice or concern for their basic human needs and dignity.
It is easy to sow fear, to tell people who to be afraid of, to treat human beings as an “other”, or to hide behind masks and internet anonymity to spread conspiracies, lies and antisemitism. It is more work, but work worth doing, to build the bridges and partnerships to resist fear, and to act with kindness.
We’ve known that kindness, as well, since our ancestors first arrived in Manhattan. Then, others helped them, creating the space for them to find refuge and to build a better future. We saw kindness, and Jews living without fear, this week when leaders gathered in Saugus – thanks to leadership from Chabad of the North Shore – to stand together against antisemitism and fear-mongering. And we are seeing kindness as the community on Martha’s Vineyard and across the Commonwealth is coming together.
I was reminded on Thursday of something that former-Governor Deval Patrick likes to say:
“We have learned to shout our anger and whisper our kindness, and it's completely upside down.”
This week, and every week, we’re shouting our kindness. Mobilizing to build bridges and partnerships - holding the fears of others and in-turn being held and supported by them in response to rising antisemitism and bigotry. Coming together with hundreds of volunteers across dozens of synagogues, human service agencies, and interfaith partners – who have already welcomed Syrians and Afghans and Ukrainians and other refugees – and will now do what is needed to support our newest arrivals.
Not long after those first Jews arrived in 1654, their descendants in Newport, Rhode Island received a promise from our first President. George Washington assured them that this newborn nation “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.”
This idea is, for us, the greatness of America. And while it is a promise still being fully realized for many Americans, it is one that inspires us and that we remain committed to every day, along with our partners and allies.
If you would like to be part of fulfilling this promise for the people who arrived on Martha’s Vineyard this week, for those migrants who have arrived secondarily from New York and Washington, DC, and for those who might be sent here in the future, please contact Rachie Lewis, our director of synagogue organizing, at .
I thank you for your partnership and for sharing our values and our vision for our great nation.