Their Story is Our Story: Re-Imagining Migration

March 13, 2018

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


Last summer, after 22 years at Facing History and Ourselves, I co-founded Re-Imagining Migration, with Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, leaders in the fields of migration and education and professors at UCLA. Their work powerfully illuminates the impact of migration on youth, while reminding us what is at stake if we are unable to tap the potential of the 26% percent of school-age children who are either migrants or the children of migrants. I enter the discussion of migration knowing that one of the keys to building bridges between newcomers and the native-born is by better understanding our past. Carola and Marcelo often explain: Migration is our past. It is our present. It is our future.

It is that line between past, present, and future that brought me back to the Lower East Side. I don’t live in “the city” anymore, but the Lower East Side isn’t hard to find. You just have to know where to look.

A few years ago, in conversation with The Covenant Foundation about ways to engage the Jewish community in teaching and learning about migration, I suggested that the Bintel Brief, a newspaper column that used to run in the Jewish Daily Forward, might serve as an untapped resource. These letters from the Forward record the ordinary stories and dilemmas of newcomers making their way in a new land. While many of the details are grounded in the context of Jewish immigration in early 20th century New York, the letters raise universal questions about integration, assimilation, and acculturation, themes as timely now as they were when they were written. Teachers, students, all of us, needed to read the Bintel Brief to understand our past, present, and future better. The Covenant Foundation agreed. A little less than a year later Re-Imagining Migration produced Immigration and Identity: Jewish Immigrants and the Bintel Brief

The letters in the Bintel Brief expose tensions between individuals and the communities in which they live, between religion and secularity, between parents and their native-born children, between husbands and wives, between immigrant Jews, their immigrant neighbors, and longer entrenched Americans. We can recognize the complexity behind the easy labels we use to describe people and remember words like Americans, Jews, and immigrants, can serve as introductions to people and groups, but the more you know, the more you recognize the limits of categorization. If we listen carefully, we will hear echoes of these stories from successive generations of immigrants to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

The philosopher, and refugee, Hannah Arendt explained, “We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” These projects offer opportunities to speak, to listen, and to learn. Moreover, I hope they encourage people to wander through their communities a bit differently. I hope they provoke curiosity and questions about what we share as humans.

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Mar. 21, 2018