When President Donald Trump issued an executive order barring refugees and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country, Jewish groups — perhaps sensing an emotional tie to the Jews’ fraught history as immigrants — immediately joined the protest.
HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, filed suit; Jewish lawyers from the ACLU raced to JFK airport to advise and protect affected travelers; individual synagogues have helped resettle refugees; Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapters have blossomed; T’ruah rabbis joined the protest and 20 got arrested; and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side hosted a HIAS training for attorneys interested in helping immigrants.
Now, in what appears to be a first, a major Jewish federation is literally upping the ante on the immigration issue and raising money for the cause. Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) has launched a campaign to raise moneyfor Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston for legal help for immigrants. As of Tuesday, they have already raised about $300,000, said CJP president Barry Shrage.
It’s not unusual for a federation to raise money for an outside cause, but usually these “second-line campaigns” (as opposed to the annual campaign) are for Israel emergencies: the Gaza war, the second intifada. Federations sometimes raise money to help non-Jewish causes, like hurricane relief efforts. But this time a major secondary campaign is going to a Catholic charity.
“The idea of establishing meaningful partnerships that are nonsectarian or build bridges with other religious and ethnic groups is not new,” said Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network, “and I think that the Jewish community in the past has been extremely successful doing that. … Think about what was done during the civil rights movement in the ’60s. …
“What seems to be new here is that they are raising money for a Catholic charity,” Spokoiny continued. “They’ve identified a need in which they can have a transformational impact and they don’t want to reinvent the wheel — which appears to me a good idea.”
The collaboration came about in the aftermath of the election and executive orders, said Shrage. “There was a lot of anxiety and a feeling that we needed to do something.”
While CJP funds Jewish affiliates that provide social services to immigrants, when they need legal help, they are sent to Catholic Charities. Shrage suggested to the board that CJP raise money for the charity.
“We thought this would be particularly nice because it represented … the opportunity for communities of faith to get together and address an issue,” Shrage said.
Deborah Kincade Rambo, Catholic Charities of Boston’s president, agreed. “To have this special opportunity to bridge the religious communities in service of the strangers among us, it’s so gratifying,” she said.
Since the executive order was announced on Jan. 27, demand at Catholic Charities’ legal clinic has at least tripled. The Monday following the announcement, the week’s eight-10 available appointments for new clients filled up “within the first five or 10 minutes of the phones being open,” Rambo said. “The panic just got huge.”
“People are terrified,” said Mariam Liberles, a Catholic Charities attorney. “They’re afraid to leave the house, they’re afraid to drive, they’re afraid to apply for something that they’re eligible for because they don’t want to give up their information to immigration in case it doesn’t work out,” she said.
“Even people who hold green cards are afraid that those aren’t good enough to keep them safe,” Rambo added. “We have kids in classrooms who are preoccupied and worried that when they get home, mom and dad won’t be there.”
The agency currently has six lawyers, some of whom are part-time, Rambo said. If CJP is able to raise $500,000, Rambo would be able to add three additional staff members, enabling the agency to serve an additional 3,000 people over the course of a four-year period — about how long it takes one of their clients to wind his or her way through the pathway to legal citizenship.
Marjean Perhot, who heads the legal services agency, said “I feel a little like I found some kindred spirits. … We all speak the same language of love and acceptance and respect.”
While this is the largest cross-faith fundraising effort of its kind that those interviewed had heard of, there are other examples of religious groups raising money for charities outside of their faiths.
Evangelical Christian ministries in Alabama, for example, pledged to raise $100,000 to help the Birmingham JCC increase security after the community center received four bomb threats; an online campaign started by two Muslims raised more than $150,000 to repair a vandalized Jewish cemetery near St. Louis; and in Washington, D.C., Adas Israel Congregation has raised nearly $30,000 to co-sponsor a Syrian refugee family under the auspices of Lutheran Social Services.
But this is the first time a Jewish charity has done a fundraising campaign of this scale, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis. “It is indeed an important new step,” he wrote in an email from Jerusalem.
“Jews have been involved for some time in Boston’s Catholic charities, but this is the first time so far as I know that CJP or any Jewish charity publicly solicited its members on behalf of a Catholic charity’s work,” he said.
“What makes this more remarkable,” he added, is that in the 1930s, Boston’s Catholic community “had a reputation for anti-Semitism” and young Jews were frequently attacked. “Nobody then could have envisaged how much Catholic-Jewish relations in Boston would improve,” he said.
Andrew Rehfeld, director of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, has suggested his federation follow CJP’s lead.
“We are trying to figure out the best way to partner with those serving immigrants, and I thought it was a fantastic idea,” he said. But, he added, “It would mean a very significant change.”
“Certainly every federation feels that its primary responsibility is to the Jewish community, but it also has a broader responsibility to all of those values that we hold dear,” said Shrage, adding that younger Jews expect the causes they give to have a “commitment to the broader world.”
Shrage said he hasn’t received much blowback on either the campaign with Catholic Charities or the CJP’s initial statement in opposition to the president’s first executive order limiting immigration.
Many supporters of the executive order cite a possible terrorist threat from travelers coming here from the countries on the travel ban list. And some Jews reject the argument that the current situation is comparable to the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust.
The decision to fundraise on the immigration issue, Shrage concluded, “also reflects during Passover … the sense that we have a special relationship to strangers, to immigrants. Every Jew in this country has family that came through immigration, and there’s a sense that it touches our hearts.”