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Taking a Stand for Immigrants on Tisha B’Av

Jewish organizations turn the day of mourning into a day of protest

Marjorie Ingall
August 06, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

This Tisha B’Av, a coalition of progressive Jewish organizations—T’ruah, the National Council of Jewish Women, Bend the Arc, the Religious Action Center, Torah Trumps Hate, and J Street—propose that Jews throughout the United States stand in solidarity with immigrant communities.

Tisha B’Av 5779 starts the evening of Saturday, Aug. 10, and concludes the following evening. It’s traditionally a time to fast and reflect on tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people—first and foremost the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. We read the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) and ponder the meaning of grief and loss. But this year, Jewish communities across the country have signed up to mark the day of mourning by holding protests and vigils at local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices and detention centers.

“The idea of this holiday is a moment to mourn catastrophes that have happened to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Salem Pearce, director of organizing at T’ruah, told me in an interview. “It would be a missed opportunity not to mourn the catastrophe that’s happening before us right now.”

Participating in “Jews Say #CloseTheCamps” activities doesn’t preclude mourning specifically Jewish tragedies, she noted. “This is an important moment in the Jewish calendar,” Pearce said. “We’re looking toward Rosh Hashanah and New Year and the chance for t’shuvah. And I’d say because of the historical and personal resonances of what’s happening in this country right now, this is a Jewish problem. The way we are treating people trying to come here for sanctuary is morally abominable. And we can’t pretend it has nothing to do with us. We have to stand up for Jewish values, especially since Judaism is currently being used as a political football by people claiming affiliation with Jewish values. Two Jews, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, are at the forefront of this administration’s anti-immigrant policies, and their Jewishness is cited as evidence of ‘This is how the Jews really feel.’ We need to say as a community, ‘No. They don’t represent us.’”

Pearce noted that the same rhetoric that was once used about Jews is now being used to demonize other communities: “Words like ‘vermin,’ ‘lack of moral values,’ threats to the ‘native’ population, ‘outsiders …” She trailed off. Indeed, a statement by an anti-immigration spokesman in the 1940s sounds awfully familiar: “Two hundred thousand Communist Jews [are] at the Mexican border waiting to get into this country. If they are admitted, they will rape every woman and child that is left unprotected.”

T’ruah has published a Mikdash Handbook to guide Jews who want to participate in the New Sanctuary movement. (Mikdash is the Hebrew word for “sanctuary”; Beit HaMikdash means the House of Sanctuary and is the term for the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, which Tisha B’Av commemorates, is what exiled the Jewish people from their Holy Land and turned us into perpetual immigrants.)

“The Mikdash Network started a couple years ago, to give synagogues and Jewish institutions a place to affiliate if they want to do sanctuary work,” Pearce said. “We use the term broadly, meaning work in support of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It can mean hosting someone in your synagogue, supporting guests in churches across the country, attending protests and vigils and studying texts together, having ‘Know Your Rights’ trainings and accompaniment trainings for synagogue members at ICE check-ins and court hearings.”

This Tisha B’Av, Jews Say #CloseTheCamps (the #CloseTheCamps hashtag is the brainchild of United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led nonprofit working for social justice; T’ruah and its partner organizations added the “Jews Say” part) plans to say that Jews stand with immigrant communities. (Some synagogues are also using the hashtag #JewsAgainstICE.) Interested in participating? You can download Tisha B’Av prayers, study texts, placards, and other resources here, including a new translation of Lamentations.

T’ruah also commissioned a new prayer by Rabbi and poet Mónica Gomery, which concludes in a shofar blast. It reads in part:

God of transformation, God of t’shuvah: May this call of the shofar be a bridge between Olam Hazeh [the world we live in] and Olam Haba [the world to come]. May this call reaffirm for us that just as we can be transformed in the season of turning, our world too can be transformed.

God of transformation, God of t’shuvah: May this call blast into our consciousness the possibility of redemption, of an end to the dehumanizing and targeting of immigrants, of a world in which all people find sanctuary, safety, and home.

Another prayer, by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, pleads for safety for immigrant children and families:

Elohei haruchot l’chol basar
God of the spirits of all flesh
We came here from all over this great country and beyond
To say no.
To say no to those who would tear children from their parents’ arms.
To say no to those who are in no rush to reunite them now.
To say no to a policy that deprives people of all ages
of the basic international human right to seek asylum in our country.
To say no to those making our border famous for brutality and heartbreak.
But more than that
Av Harachamim
Father of all fathers
Mother of all mothers
Source of all compassion—
We are here to say yes.
Yes to children and to families.
Yes to the sanctity, to the preciousness, to the dignity of all life, created in Your image. Yes to the truth of Your Oneness, and ours.
Yes to the breathtaking beauty of our world—
And yes to the vital moral fabric of our lives.
To those who would tear that fabric apart,
We are here to say—we will always show up to stitch it back together.
We walk in the footsteps of our ancestor Abraham
Who “stitched worlds together”
Who saw connection everywhere
Who was commanded to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
We know that it is so much easier—and faster—to tear things apart
Than it is to stitch them together.
But we will keep showing up for as long as it takes.
Because we are parents ourselves
Because we are teachers
Because we are witnesses
Because we are weavers
Because we are threads
in the tapestry of Your creation.
We will stitch together what has been torn apart.
Dear God, please give us strength. Give us wisdom. Give us courage.
Gather us all in the embrace of your unending love.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Listen, you who struggle,
And bear witness to the One God who holds us all.

This prayer is followed by reading the names of the six immigrant children who we know have died in immigration custody in the last year:

Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10
Jakelin Caal Maquín, 7
Felipe Gomez Alonso, 8
Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16
Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 2
Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, 16

It concludes with Kaddish, the traditional prayer for the dead.

Some Jews, reading these new prayers and thinking about blowing a shofar on Tisha B’Av, are no doubt banshee-shrieking in rage. So what can you say to friends and family who insist on drawing distinctions between long-ago Jewish and modern-day non-Jewish immigrants? Jews Say #CloseTheCamps offers some suggestions: If they say, “These policies are Obama-era policies!” you can say: “Yes, many of them were in place during the Bush and Obama administrations! Such policies were a nationalist response to 9/11. But the Trump administration has taken these efforts to a whole new level. In 2018, the State Department denied 620,311 visas and green cards, an increase of 37% from just one year earlier.” If they say, “But our ancestors came here legally!” you can say: “If your family arrived before 1924, you are probably correct! Because immigration was legal for everyone except Chinese people, who were barred in 1882! And then, in 1924, the U.S. Government decided to address the threat of ‘inferior stock’ from Europe, which they feared would challenge the racial superiority of Nordic ‘old stock’ Americans, and after that, fewer than 10,000 European Jews were allowed into the country! And, by the way, 67% of Americans in 1938 were opposed to letting in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.”

If they say, “You’re calling for open borders, commie!” You can say: “Having reasonable immigration policies in place is not ‘open borders.’ Does giving tzedakah mean giving away every penny of your money?” If they say, “But Ronald Reagan!” (many Republicans like to say, “But Ronald Reagan”), you can say: “In 1986, President Reagan gave legal status and amnesty to 2.9 million undocumented immigrants, something Trump and his ilk fervently oppose.”

You can also point out that the sanctuary movement has been around a very long time. Temple Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the first synagogue whose board approved a resolution to engage in legal sanctuary activities, in February 1983. (Reagan was president.) Go, Badgers. In 1984 the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative movement’s Halakhic decision-making arm) passed a resolution addressing sanctuary; the Reform and Reconstructionist movements followed in 1985. That same year, 1,300 people attended a symposium on sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson; Elie Wiesel was the keynote speaker.

What about after Tisha B’Av has passed? There’s still so much you can do, Jewishly. Over 70 synagogues belong to the Mishkan Network—find out if yours does, and talk to your rabbi if it doesn’t. In addition to attending protests and vigils, you can request meetings with elected officials, and seek volunteers in your community who might be willing to offer pro bono services: lawyers, social workers, health care workers. Display signs (in English and Spanish) in your synagogue or community center explaining what an immigrant can do if ICE shows up. Offer free meeting space to immigrant-led groups for meetings and trainings; provide childcare. Hang a “Sanctuary Mezuzah” (declaring that your synagogue is a sanctuary, committed to protecting immigrants) near your actual mezuzah. And if your synagogue has a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, know that ICE may show up looking for undocumented immigrants. T’ruah suggests that congregations seek legal advice, develop a plan of action, and train volunteers and staff in how to deal with ICE now, before agents come knocking. T’ruah has collected several sample policies; email them at [email protected] if you’d like to consult them.

The word mikdash comes from the Hebrew root kadosh. That means holy. This is holy work. And Tisha B’Av is a perfect opportunity to ponder how to lead a holier life.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.