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Through the Neila Gates by way of Ellis Island, by Rabbi David Cooper

My mother, my father, and my stepfather had all had the experience coming into America from Europe. My mother was unusual because having been born in Brooklyn, her parents decided to return to Romania and settle back in the city where they had been born. But a few years later, after Hitler had walked into Vienna to cheering crowds, my mother’s father had decided that Europe had become too dangerous. So my mom had the unusual circumstance of having left the United States as an emigrant and returning here as a refugee.

In 1974 or 75, I was 23 or 24. I, and a housemate of mine, were visiting New York from Ohio and we found out that Ellis Island was going to be opened temporarily for people to visit. Now this was 15 or 16 years before it would open as a US National Monument, a tourist attraction. Today it is all fixed up with interactive exhibits. But when we there, it was a run down building with ropes and hazard signs showing where the building was safe and where it was collapsing. The last immigrants to be processed there was 50 years before. While it had been an immigration center from 1892 to 1924, 12 million immigrants had gone through, and it is estimated that 40% of all people living in the United States today have ancestry that passed through that building.

When we got there, it had been abandoned for years. An informal guide pointed out where the lines were for intake and processing and we saw where people with diseases were sent to determine whether they would be admitted or sent back to Europe. My friend who was with me was the grandchild of Italian immigrants from Abruzzi. And we walked through this ruin filled with ghosts. And we could feel that it was the most liminal space we had ever been. It was not yet America—which you could see right across the bay—but it certainly wasn’t Europe. And what really drove home its liminal quality was that in this place, people viscerally knew that their past was over and that their future had not yet begun. Of course that is true for any of us at any time in our lives—our past behind us, our future ahead of us. But there on that island that feeling was palpable.

After a while the boat was scheduled to leave. We got on board and a while later, the ferry was approaching Manhattan. The ferry gate was about to open as the last few yards of water narrowed as the ferry closed in on the dock.

Just then a thought came into my head. I knew that many others before me must have had the same thought on the very same spot as their ferry was about to dock.

So I turned to my friend and spoke the thought out loud: “So now that you’re in America, what are you going to do now?”

And he choked a bit as he responded. “Yeah,” he said. “After all these decades, it’s still the same question.”

We are going to take a minute or two of discernment as we enter into Yom Kippur’s last service.

Now it is Neila time. The gates are now open. So now that you’re in America, what will you do next as you walk into your future?

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