New awareness

Immigration work has changed my rabbinate

In Short

The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Adamah: People, Planet, Purpose (formerly, Hazon). Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: http://www.cliforum.org/blog/.

In January 2023, President Biden ventured down to the southern border of the United States. While in El Paso, President Biden met with Bishop Mark Seitz, who gave him a note from a migrant child waiting to be reunited with her family. In part, the message read, “Lord, I ask you to get me out of here soon. Help me with my case. I want to be with my mommy and my sister soon.”

During the Trump Administration, the media covered the sounds and images of U.S. Border Patrol personnel ripping babies from their mother’s arms. While that may not be the current practice under the Biden Administration, U.S. immigration policies do continue to separate families. U.S. immigration policy continues to be a disaster, with many families who want to enter the United States facing horrendous choices regarding their lives and the lives of their children.

In the spring and summer of 2018, news of the government building tent camps in the Texas desert started hitting media outlets. I was moved to take action, not only as a matter of personal conscience but also because of how I view my role as a rabbi serving the community who represents the values of the Jewish tradition. As the tent camps swelled with an influx of migrant teens, the living conditions became worse and worse. Officially, the camps were designed to hold teens for a few days, but in documented cases, the government confined some teens for months. Along with confinement came arbitrary rules such as a prohibition on touching. Even siblings were not allowed to give each other hugs while being held at the camps.

When I first learned about the camps, I knew that besides donating money to organizations like RAICES, that were working on legal issues for separated families, it was equally important to raise public consciousness about what was happening at the border. I felt that we had to get more people to Tornillo, Texas, the location of the first camp. I contacted various national Jewish social justice organizations but none were in a position to move quickly enough. As far as I was concerned, we were in an emergency. The United States government was holding children in the West Texas desert, far away from the eyes of the world.

Additionally, it was clear that the Administration had a policy of using unethical tactics to disincentivize migrants from journeying north; they stated as such when it came to separating families. As a Jew, I was well aware that, not so very long ago, our parents and grandparents were the ones being denied refuge when attempting to flee Nazi Europe.

As it happened, one of my rabbinic colleagues, who was also very eager to respond to the urgency of the situation at our southern border, learned that Faith in Action, a national, faith-based organization, was preparing an action on behalf of immigration justice. Their framing of the issue and the appropriate faith-inspired response to the crisis was challenging. In many cases, migrants walk 1000 miles or more to reach the southern border of the United States. Faith in Action saw this as a kind of sacrifice. They asked: How might our efforts, our “sacrifice,” be commensurate with that being made by migrants? We suggested that a caravan of cars, leaving from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I am a rabbi, and picking up rallygoers along the route, would be an appropriate “action” response. It would enable us to have small rallies in cities from Michigan to Texas, building media attention for immigration justice and the crisis at the border along the way.

As we prepared for the kick-off rally, members of my congregation and the congregations of other colleagues who were supporting the action, started offering donations. The more we spoke about the issue, the more we opened people’s hearts and, in turn, people wanted to provide financial support for the effort even if they couldn’t join us on the caravan. The week before Thanksgiving in 2018, we caravanned to Texas. We spent a morning witnessing and protesting in Tornillo and the rest of the day volunteering in El Paso to help the community as they welcomed and fed the migrants. Justice is advanced by incremental change. Our caravan may not have changed American immigration policy but, two months after our rally, the camp holding migrant children at Tornillo was shut down.

Immigration work has changed my rabbinate and my congregation. It has brought me to Central America three times in four years as I try to understand the root causes of migration. It has brought me into relationships with priests, nuns and other Christians I likely wouldn’t have come to know. And it has changed my political perspectives in ways that I could not have imagined.

First, I learned something about how to work with national organizations. My first impulse was to find a national Jewish organization that could guide my desire to take action. I was initially frustrated that none of the organizations I approached were in a position to help. And yet that initial failure led me to partner with Christian colleagues and with Faith in Action. I realized how much more meaningful our activism was by virtue of it being a multi-faith effort. Going forward, finding partners outside the Jewish world on social justice issues will become ever more important. In addition to Faith in Action, our partner in El Paso was the HOPE Border Institute, an immigration organization based in El Paso whose activism on behalf of migrants is driven by Catholic social teachings. Given how vulnerable migrants from Central America are, they have a level of trust in an organization that speaks their language of faith. Without the relationship with the HOPE Border Institute, our rally would never have had the impact or the reach that it had.

Second, I believe that there is no more important public policy issue for the Jewish community than immigration justice. As our tradition makes abundantly clear, we are obliged to extend our support to the strangers among us (ahavat ger). And yet, the relative affluence of most of the Jewish community makes the issues of destitute migrants of other faith traditions coming to our southern border seem quite remote and removed from our daily reality. HIAS, founded in 1881, has helped hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees escape persecution and rebuild their lives in free countries. In recent years, they have made an extraordinary pivot so that most of the beneficiaries of their advocacy and rescue are non-Jews. And yet its work is inspired by the Jewish tradition, not unlike the way the work of the HOPE Border Institute is inspired by Catholic social teachings. Along with HIAS, Jewish human rights organizations like T’ruah continue to fight discriminatory immigration policies that deny asylum to those in need. If we are to mobilize the Jewish community to use its collective political and financial resources to address the immigration crisis in our country, we need to work with groups like HIAS and T’ruah to raise the consciousness of Jews about why this is a Jewish issue.

Finally, my engagement with immigration justice over the past few years make me much clearer about my responsibilities as a rabbi. There are many demands on my time and I could fill all the hours of my week serving the needs presented by my many congregational duties. Taking action on immigration justice was not part of my job profile but I knew that it had to be part of my rabbinate. The two things are not always the same. Over time, my modeling the need to commit to a larger social justice issue sent a powerful message to members of my congregation. The result was a much more expansive understanding of how synagogues need to define themselves and we are a stronger congregation as a result of that new awareness.

Josh Whinston is the rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Josh continues to work on immigration justice with T’ruah as a member of the BIMAH (Building Immigration Momentum and Action) steering committee. He is part of the new class of the Clergy Leadership Incubator Rabbinical Fellowship, CLI-6 starting in June 2023.