My grandmother, Nonna Anny, was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1924. When Austria was annexed by Germany and Kristallnacht occurred in 1938, she was 14 years old. Nonna Anny was the second-oldest of five siblings. They did not have the means to escape Austria and​ needed a financial sponsor to obtain a visa for the U.S. or money to be able to escape to any other safe haven. One of her uncles lived in America and promised to sponsor his sister’s family to receive visas. 

My grandmother told me how their days were full of fear and horror. She was blond with blue eyes; she could pass as an Aryan, and so she used to stand in line — the Aryan line — at the bakery to buy bread, always in fear of being caught as an imposter, a Jewess. During those months, they would count the minutes until the official visas for America would arrive. America meant salvation, it meant freedom. Her uncle promised he would sign the Affidavit of Support, but he did not. This affidavit was not signed and because of this — the lack of one signature on a piece of  paper — the entire family’s hopes of being saved were crushed. One signature. One piece of paper. One family not saved. 

My grandmother spent the war running and hiding, hiding and running. Escaping death multiple times. She was lucky. She survived. She raised me and my siblings. 

Eighty-one years later, I received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security to present myself at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in downtown Phoenix on Dec. 5, 2019, to take the oath to become an American citizen. I started the process of citizenship approximately a year earlier. I have been living in the United States since 2005, was married in 2006 and have been a permanent resident (holding a green card). You may wonder what made me decide to become a citizen now. Why did I wait so many years?  

The truth is, I was eligible to become American a few years ago, but between lack of  time, work and other considerations, I procrastinated. But then I realized something that overwhelmed me. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. My green card was expiring — what if my green card renewal application was missing that one signature on one piece of paper? I have friends who were deported for mistakes done 10 or 15 years before. Almost daily, I read about green card holders “mistaken” for illegal immigrants and put on a plane within a few hours to a country they did not know anymore. I heard of proposals to make it more difficult for legal permanent residents to renew their status. And the cold sweat started again. One signature on one piece of paper could have so many repercussions for me, for my wife and for our two children. These were the “technical” reasons I applied for citizenship.

I grew up watching American TV shows and movies. As a child, I dreamt that I would see New York and the Pacific Ocean, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see the Grand Canyon or the red mountains of Sedona. The United States always represented a bastion of freedom, liberty and justice. America was the country where millions of people from all backgrounds and faiths lived together safely and could thrive.  

Over the years, I learned American history and politics. I understand that America is not a utopia — I believe it is something better: It is an idea. Other countries do not have this same foundation. Other countries may have better food, nicer fashion, an older history and wonderful scenery. But not one of them was built on the ideas that make this nation great.    

No one can destroy an idea. No one can destroy the values of this country. Throughout the history of human civilization, no people has sacrificed more for the goodwill and benefit of the rest of humanity as America has. On Dec. 5 — when I stood together with 70 strangers from 35 countries — I had a once in a lifetime experience. On my right sat an Iraqi Christian woman and on my left, a Syrian Muslim man. I — a Jew — was in the middle, and all three of us were there to swear allegiance to the ideas and values of this country. For that moment, we were not from three different, and at times conflicting, faiths. We were not from countries at war. We were there because we share the same values, the same ideas. The same resolution to ‘“support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law ... and take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”

I remember listening to Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s ​“This Land Is Your Land.” I fell in love with that song as soon as I heard it. What especially struck me were the lines: “Nobody living can ever stop me/ As I go walking that freedom highway/ Nobody living can ever make me turn back/ This land was made for you and me.”  

Thirty years after hearing this song, I truly know what it means.

Why did I apply for citizenship? Because I am American — I was an American even before I became a citizen. I was an American when I embraced the values, ideals and  spirit of this country that has given me so much. I am an American and, like me, millions of people around the world look up to America to uphold those same rights that they might not enjoy in their countries. This is our responsibility. That is the reason we are Americans, and today I can also say that I am a proud U.S. citizen. JN

Rabbi Michael Beyo is the CEO of the East Valley JCC.