Choose life that all may live, by Rabbi Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser

I could have been one of Donald Trump’s guests when he spoke to Congress recently. He brought three families whose loved ones had been killed by an illegal immigrant. I lost my parents 17 years ago to an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk on a Sunday morning in Boca Raton, Florida. My narrative of the events these last years has always focused on the drunk driving, on alcoholism and its effects. But I realize there is another piece of the story. My parents were killed by an illegal immigrant.

Had the president invited me to be his guest, however, I would not have come. Because President Trump does not speak for me. His actions do not represent me. His edicts do not ease my suffering. I do not want to punish all illegal immigrants for the actions of the one. That is the way of darkness.

The man who killed my parents was sentenced to 23 years in jail. It could have been 43 years, but I advocated for mercy since he was 26. I am not a saint. I made myself forget the name of the man who killed my parents. I do not know what he looks like. He is in prison and I do not know if he is alive or dead, nor do I care.

But I had an experience at the time, a flow of grace that kept me from rage. I remembered the words of Thich Nhat Hanh. “this is because that is.” At first I was angry, then I thought, with whom? The drunk driver? The farmer who hired him? The people who got the beer he drank? The person who loaned him the car to get more beer? These people are all connected. The connection between them brought that man to that intersection at that time.

In the last few days I have come to greater connections. The farmer who can not harvest his crop without undocumented migrants. The system that exploits them. The poverty that makes someone go far away from home in an effort to better themselves—a desire common to all of us. The undocumented immigrant is the personification of the American ideal—to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. In the case of the man who killed my parents, there is the crushing pain when one’s dreams of a better life disappear. Pain that is numbed by alcohol. These are all connected. Who do I blame? Who do I rage against?

We are a rich nation willing to tolerate poverty here and around the world. We think the solution to problems is punishment. We build walls. We suffocate those among us who have suffered and still dream. My own country is also in the series of connections that put that man at that intersection on a Sunday morning. I do not want to put all alcoholics in prison because one killed my parents. In fact our judicial system is much more lenient with drunk drivers than it is with undocumented immigrants. I do not want to punish all undocumented immigrants because one killed my parents. I spurn the way of darkness.

There are probably people living here who have been convicted of serious crimes as undocumented residents of this country. I think they should be deported. For the rest, I say welcome. “This is because that is.” Welcome, let us help you, let us connect so that on a Sunday morning all of our connections put you at that college, that good job, that wonderful family rather than that intersection. Choose life that all may live.


Rabbi Rhonda Shapiro-Reiser, ordained by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2015, serves as Jewish advisor to students at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The opinions expressed in this essay are her own.