The Charette Project

Michael Scherotter's Digital Playground

The Strangers Among Us

Last year during the high holidays my congregation Gan Halev asked me to give a talk to the congregation during the Yom Kippur service.  Now I am hearing the reports about the flood of unaccompanied minors coming to the United States from Central America and I saw some connections between my talk and their situation so I decided to share the text of the talk:

The Strangers Among Us

Good Evening. My name is Michael Scherotter. I am a father and husband and my family has been a member of Gan Halev for six years. For work, I explain technology for Microsoft and in my job as a technical evangelist I often I use stories to help get a point across. Today I’d like to reflect on a passage out of Leviticus chapter 19, verses 33 and 34:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.”

Now I could take this passage and talk to you for a few minutes about immigration and the ills of nationalism and xenophobia but knowing this audience, I would likely be preaching to the converted. Rather I’d like to tell you a story about a stranger.

On March 4, 1910, the ship Noordam landed at Ellis Island having traveled from Rotterdam, Holland. On board that ship were three passengers from Bucharest, Romania: two boy accompanied by young woman who was not their mother. Abe, age 9 and Simon, age 7 were those two boys. Once in New York, they met up with their older sister who had been working and sending money to Romania to pay for her younger brothers’ passage to the new world. That 7 year old boy, that stranger, was my grandfather.

I have tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a 7-year old boy taking a ship across the Atlantic to America. He was now the stranger residing in someone else’s land. What friends did he leave behind? What family did he never see again? How old was he when he first experienced anti-Semitism? How quickly did he learn a new language? My grandfather died when I was a baby so I never really knew him, but my father never recalled him speaking anything but English. My grandfather made his adopted country his home and never went back to Romania. He was also proud to be a Jew in a time when many Jews tried to assimilate. My father recalled that during the high holidays, they would close their shop in Silver City, New Mexico, and put a sign on it “Closed for the Jewish Holidays” so they could drive the 150 miles to the nearest synagogue in El Paso, Texas.

When anyone makes a move like this and becomes a stranger they have an opportunity to remake themselves – to cast off the past, to grow, to adopt a new persona. From the ships manifest, my grandfather’s name was Simon Sieroter. That is the last record we have found of that name – ever since, his name was Sam Scherotter.

I’m sure that many of you have similar stories about your ancestors – it is the story of Jews in America. But it is also the story of America – and the story of California starting with the Gold Rush. People came to California leaving behind their home country, the east coast, the Midwest, the dustbowl. They too left behind friends and family, reputations and names, and opted to become strangers, making a gamble that what they didn’t know might just be better than what they were familiar with.

When those strangers wanted to stay in touch with their past, they often wrote letters, sent telegraphs, made phone calls, but quite often they lost touch with people if they didn’t make a concerted effort to stay in touch. As we have grown up, most of us have lost touch – for better or for worse – with many people. This happened for me when I went across the country for high school, to another state for college, studied abroad, went to graduate school, and then moved up to the Bay Area to live. I have been a stranger many times, and each of these times, I had the opportunity to grow, to remake my image, to be someone new. Being a stranger stretched you in ways nothing else does.

We have also experienced over the past few years reconnecting with some of these lost connections through the internet. That’s been fun. None of us had Facebook or LinkedIn when we were kids. Young people today have access to technology and networks in a way imagined only in science fiction when we were their age. The difference for them is that as they are growing up they have to make a conscious effort to lose touch with people. The balance has shifted – becoming a stranger and losing touch now must be a deliberate act, not a consequence of inaction. This is a tectonic generational shift bigger than just different clothing and music – young people today are growing social networks not bounded by geography and are growing up in a fundamentally different world than the one we grew up in. As an example, this school year, my older boy Alex won’t be going to school with his best friend. They have chosen to use the online game Minecraft to stay in touch and keep their friendship alive. In Minecraft, they are constructing a 3-dimensional virtual world filled with creations from their shared imagination. For my son’s generation, the real world is a much smaller place and much harder to become a stranger. In biblical time up until my generation, community was defined by geography and proximity. People from another land were strangers. Now with my son’s generation, community is not bounded by geography or proximity – it is defined by the network you keep via email, Facebook, or even SnapChat. This is a profound change to how we build our communities and how we categorize the strangers.

As we look to start a new year, I want you to think about when you were a stranger in the land of Egypt, Ellis Island, San Francisco, or San Geronimo and how that felt. Now, take that feeling and see how you can be more hospitable to the strangers among us – the new student, the new employee, the new neighbor, the migrant, the new members of our congregation, the teenager down the hall. The strangers are the risk-takers we need to encourage – they have the chutzpa that needs to rub off on us. We need to inspire our children to leave the safety of homes and become a stranger somewhere.

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.”

The overt message here is clear: be kind to strangers because we were once strangers ourselves. But the more subtle message is much more interesting and nuanced: maybe God was trying to tell us that having strangers among us makes our community stronger and this is how we can help heal the world – Tikkun Olam.

Thank you and Sh’na Tova.

Copyright © 2013 Michael S. Scherotter

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