By Kenny Steinman
For many Columbus Jews, the Torah’s repeated commandments to befriend and protect the stranger assumed new relevance this year. Amid heated national debates about immigration, central Ohio’s rapid growth has been aided by what is now the state’s largest population of foreign-born residents.
Saturday, March 17 at Agudas Achim, a leader from the local Somali community joined 24 others to discuss biblical and rabbinic texts about one’s obligation towards the ger – a Hebrew term often translated as stranger, foreigner or sojourner.
Born in Somalia in the early days of its civil war, Ismail Mohammed began school in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before immigrating with his family to Columbus in 2005. He graduated from Northland High School, the Ohio State University and OSU’s Moritz College of Law, and recently became the first Somali-American to pass the bar in Ohio. He now practices law at BakerHostetler and is a candidate for state legislature in Ohio’s 25th District.
Welcoming the stranger is a common theme in Jewish social justice, although this session considered unusually provocative questions. For instance, how might Jewish efforts to identify with the ger misinterpret or belittle the experience of gerim today? The term ger almost always appears in the singular masculine when referring to non-Jews, whereas references to Jews usually appear in the plural. What does this difference say about how we imagine the ger?
Participants included members of the congregation as well as Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors.
“It was fantastic,” said Amy Cohen, a congregant who attended the session. “It’s one thing to study concepts in the abstract, but today’s conversations were so much more nuanced because of Ismail’s insights and experiences.”
Mohammed also raved about the session. “It was amazing to learn about my neighbors and their tradition. I hope this will lead to many more similar gatherings to bridge differences and bring hearts and minds together.”
The session was organized by Refugee Road Project with the support of Congregation Agudas Achim. With Mohammed’s encouragement, attendees expressed interest in organizing a trip to a local mosque to continue learning and building relationships.