By Linda Scherzer, CRC Director
On a sleepless night last Tuesday, as the contours of an historic electoral decision began to take shape, my mind drifted back to a lower Manhattan courtroom, where – 15 years ago – I took the oath to became an American citizen. It was on that day that I stood before a federal judge, raised my right hand, and turned to face the American flag.
“I hereby declare on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”
I was not alone that day. Surrounding me were 150 new immigrants and their families dressed in their finest clothes; women pinned with corsages and cameras raised to record a transcendent moment in the life of a family that would be passed down through the generations. Reverberating inside my head were the words on a national landmark less than a mile from where I stood.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” reads the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
And here they were in front of me. Parents and children fleeing poverty in India, dictatorship in Cuba, genocide in the former Yugoslavia. There were 200,000 Mexicans who became naturalized citizens that year, the largest group of immigrants in 2001, and 21,933 Canadians, the smallest group, of which I was one.
I surveyed the scene with a reporter’s sense of detachment. Unlike my fellow new immigrants, I politely refused the small American flags being handed out, for I was not a flag waver. Taking the oath, I told myself, was a formality; in practical terms I had lived and worked, thrived and stumbled, gone to sleep and awakened in this country as a student and working journalist for many years. My immigrant experience did not reflect the poverty, displacement, and fear that marked the lives of so many in that courtroom. Canadian born, I had lived a free and entitled existence; studied at American universities and used my H-1B working visa to start my career in broadcast journalism. In my quest for the American dream, I rarely stopped to think of the abundant gifts this country afforded its citizens. Like a lot of people, most of them young, I took those gifts for granted.
All that changed two months later, when, on a bright September morning, two commercial airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. It was at that pivotal and tragic moment in our nation’s history that I first felt the stirrings of what it meant to be an American. First, there was gratitude for simply being alive for I was on a plane that morning too, headed for Newark Airport. Then, gradually, an understanding that the core values that defined us were under attack. We learned that day that certain people hated us for everything from the faiths we believe in and the movies we produce to the position of women in society. We fought back not only on battlefields thousands of miles away, but also by reaffirming the strength of American core values: the pursuit of justice, human rights, and equality for all men and women.
Since that day, and on each successive trip to the voting booth, those feelings become resurgent. As I press the buttons I feel an enormous sense of pride, not for a party but for a process. Not for a platform but for an ideal. Not for the candidates but for the values that continue to set our country’s moral compass.
This election was not like the ones before it, and the results – sadly – point to a divided, unhappy, and angry nation. What we must force ourselves to remember though, as we try to carve out a new normal, is that the values that defined us before are the values that still define us.
As the CRC of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, we will continue to fight for social justice and racial equality. We will stand up for minorities, the rights of the LGBTQ community, for womens’ reproductive rights, and for the rights and dignity of the disabled. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the Jewish community in Congress and in Trenton to protect the safety nets that safeguard the most vulnerable in our society: the elderly, the hungry, the disabled, and Holocaust survivors.
We will speak out with firm resolve against any expression of anti-Semitism, but also stand with the same resolve when acts of hatred are directed against other minority groups, including Muslims, gays, and African Americans.
We will redouble our efforts to build a society based on common decency, kindness, and tolerance for all Americans regardless of the person we love, the faith we believe in, or the party we voted for.
On Wednesday morning, as reports came in that a Canadian immigration website had crashed under the weight of heavy traffic, a colleague joked that it may be time for me too, to renew my Canadian passport. I paused for no more than a second to think about it before my eye caught the post of a dear Canadian friend who, quoting another friend, wrote this on her Facebook page:
“We would be thrilled for you to visit us ̶ anytime! ̶ but doesn’t your country need you?”
Yes, my country does.