A Conversation with Award-Winning D’var Torah Writer Anna Hirsh
Anna Hirsh is the 2015 winner of NFTY’s Wendy Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah Competition, a competition for high school students to share their words of Torah. Writers were encouraged to incorporate the theme of this year’s essay contest, “audacious hospitality,” into their submissions about parashat Chayei Sarah.
Anna, a sophomore from Boulder, CO, chose to relate the parashah to global current events, writing in her winning d'var, “The refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East is the biggest migration crisis since World War II – when we, the Jewish people, were the strangers.” We spoke with her to learn how her perspectives on this topic have developed since she wrote her d’var three months ago.
ReformJudaism.org: What inspired you to write "The Human in Every Stranger"? Why was talking about Syrian refugees important to you?
Anna: I write best when I'm able to infuse my own passion for a subject into my writing. I strove to write my d’var Torah about something that really mattered and found an issue that is arising in my everyday life, which I wanted to add my voice to. The Syrian refugee crisis is, of course, to me, very distant. I can’t even come close to imagining being in such a situation, but after forming my opinion and expressing it in my own words, I’ve found myself caring so much more about the people whom it affects. Looking at this issue specifically through a Jewish lens and the theme of audacious hospitality forced me to think very hard about current events in the world and my opinions about them.
With all that has happened since you first wrote your d’var Torah in September – including the terrorist attacks in Paris and the legislation that Congress recently passed making Syrian immigration more challenging – how do you feel about your piece now? Does it still holds true?
There is another aspect of welcoming the stranger that I didn’t talk about, and that is the prospect of the stranger having bad intentions and what happens if we fear the stranger. Of course, now, this is what everyone is talking about. The attacks in Paris have spawned a deep discomfort throughout the population about welcoming the Syrian refugees into our country. What if something happens? What if people die because someone crossed our borders who meant us harm? We have been asking ourselves these questions over and over again, but we must not let our fear win.
Arguably, fear is something we should listen to – but we should not so completely succumb to that we block out compassion. There are people who need our help. Yes, we are scared, but fear only drives us to create more problems. This same type of fear forced Japanese Americans into internment during World War II, and today it’s creating a culture of discrimination against those who practice Islam.
The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that will exponentially increase the difficulty of coming into the United States as a Syrian or Iraqi refugee. This is a security blanket, but we’re not the ones in dire need of security. My opinion – that it is our duty as a stable democracy to welcome people who are fleeing war and prejudice in their own homes – remains. I’m not saying we should ignore danger, because we shouldn’t, but we should not let it stand in the way of being welcoming and compassionate human beings. By acting as the Rivkas of the twenty-first century and practicing audacious hospitality, we are combating terror and violence with love and kindness.
How does this topic resonate with teens your age? What has their reaction been to your d’var Torah?
As teenagers in the United States, we are generally very removed from the refugee situation. We hear about it in newspapers, on television, and in conversation, but it is difficult to determine what we can do. School, homework, sports, and clubs dominate our lives, and it’s often hard to think about anything else. We’re supposed to think about grades, about college, and about relationships; we are not necessarily pushed to think about worldwide issues (though I know I have been, through youth group and confirmation), but they are part of and greatly affect the world we live in.
From talking to friends, I’ve found that many of them share my opinion – that we must not compromise our moral obligation to the people of our world who require our help. Of course, this situation is very complicated, and it’s hard to talk about. But we have a unique voice in the world. We are the next generation; we are the next ones to create change, so I think that it’s empowering for teens to be involved and care about the challenges the world is facing. For me, writing this d’var and being able to express my own thoughts, feelings, and opinions has made me feel that I do, indeed, have a voice.