Overcome by the scene in Battery Park and the moment — one that tied the 1930s, when the Jews of Europe were themselves refugees fleeing persecution, to today’s fraught political reality — Dahlia Remler was on the verge of tears.
As thousands of people on Sunday afternoon marched in protest of the Trump administration’s temporary shutting of the country’s borders to citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, Remler fought back emotion.
“I’m 51,” she said. “This is the first time I ever went to a rally. Last week I couldn’t go [to the Women’s March]. I never felt that civil liberties were under threat in my country until now.”
Remler had just been listening intently as her rabbi, Peter Schweitzer of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, spoke to a reporter and sounded the themes of a number of his congregants who, on short notice, answered his call to pray with their feet and attend a rally co-sponsored by a number of groups including The New York Immigration Coalition, Make the Road New York, Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), New York City Anti-Violence Project, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Partnership for New Americans.
The simple sign Rabbi Schweitzer held up, written in red marker on what looked like it was once the side of a cardboard box, drove home the historically powerful point: “My father was a refugee.”
“Clearly this is a Jewish issue,” the rabbi told The Jewish Week as the large crowd began to chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”
“It resonates with our history,” Rabbi Schweitzer continued. “My father was a refugee who came from Germany as a teenager in 1937. [If he had not left] I wouldn’t be here. We carried a sign last week at the Women’s March that said, ‘We were strangers in Egypt.’ This is our issue. All these issues are ours.”
But the rabbi wasn’t simply focused on the past, or on the protest; he also emphasized the importance of action.
“We’re trying to ramp up our activities,” he said, adding that he hopes to build “a rapid-response team,” to learn how to do letter writing and make phone calls, and to collect donations to hire lawyers.
About the White House statement Friday regarding International Holocaust Remembrance Day — issued the same day as the immigration crackdown and failing to mention Jews or anti-Semitism — Rabbi Schweitzer said, “I don’t think the White House has a clue as to how to be respectful.”
Eric Salitsky, an architect who lives in Brooklyn, echoed the theme of Jewish refugees of the past caught in the grip of authoritarianism.
Wearing a small leather yarmulke and standing with two friends, Salitsky held a sign that read, “Remember the MS St. Louis”, a reference to the ship carrying Jews fleeing the Nazis that was turned back at the American shoreline.
“Refugees are very important to me,” he said. “I’m actually really happy to see a lot of Jewish organizations stepping up. Big ones, too, like the [Conservative movement’s] Rabbinic Assembly and the Reform movement. The ADL, surprisingly, in my opinion, is really stepping up especially in this matter of refugees.”
Olivia Gellis has a very personal tie to immigrants. A midwife and doula from Brooklyn in her 30s, she says she “gives away a lot of free services for immigrants and refugees.”
She was carrying a sign that read “‘Never Again’ is Now!” And she noted that her family had been turned away by America in 1939 and subsequently perished in the Holocaust.
“I had 13 family members on a ship that was turned back, and all of them were killed. That was half of my family.
“What’s happening right now,” Gellis continued, “is exactly what happened to my family and millions of millions of other families.”
About the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gellis said, “I just sobbed. I had no words. I think he purposely did not mention the word Jews.”
She then turned her attention to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser, and the fact that the president has Jewish grandchildren.
“I struggle with that,” Gellis said. “I’m trying to be eloquent in what I’m saying but I’m not. In history there were Jewish people helping the Nazi party, so that really means nothing. And I think that Kushner should be ashamed of himself.”
Along the march route was Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student Jeremy Feinberg, sporting a beard and yarmulke. “I’m here to support what I believe is a fundamental Jewish belief — welcoming the stranger into our community.”
Asked about Friday’s statement, he said, “I think it’s shameful. It’s deeply disconcerting. It’s like an erasure of the specifics of history.”
At Foley Square, Rabbi Joshua Stanton of Hoboken, N.J., who stressed that he was at the march as an individual and not representing his Short Hills, N.J., congregation, told The Jewish Week: “Our tradition calls us to learn from history and see that, of all people, we have learned some really extraordinarily painful lessons, and we can’t stand idly by. We’re called to act on behalf not only of our own community but others who are in need of our support,” said the rabbi, who was at the march with his wife, a criminal defense attorney.
Rabbi Stanton, 30, continued: “Our Muslim colleagues and friends are living in a state of fear. And they are really upset. Many of them came here and have lived out the American dream, and all of a sudden feel as though they are being made to feel like second-class citizens and as though they’re not fully welcome, and it’s terrible.
“If you look at Jewish and Muslim immigration patterns in the United States they mirror each other remarkably. The most educated group of women in the U.S. by religion are Jews, followed by Muslims. If you look at what American Muslims seek to do, to come here to get a great education, work hard and support their families and be caring citizens. So I feel it in my heart of hearts, my gut that, lo and behold, another community that is trying to live just as we have in the U.S. is going to be pushed aside. I’ve been really heartened to see so many Jews taking a stand on issues of immigrant rights and refugee rights.”
The rabbi’s wife, Mirah Curzer, also 30 and wearing a pink Planned Parenthood hat, said she has “always been involved in activism” and has “been on these streets a lot.” She was active with Occupy Wall Street and “all of the protest events surrounding Trump” and was at the march on Sunday “as a lawyer, because the executive action is unprecedented. It’s illegal, it’s unconstitutional, it wasn’t vetted by lawyers, and I was very proud last night of my law school friends who were camped out in the airports all [Friday] night filing habeas petitions on behalf of refugees. I’ve never been prouder to be a lawyer then I was last night.
“And I’m also here as a Jew, a rebbetzin, and I’m involved in the Jewish community. [On] Holocaust Remembrance Day to have another group of refugees banned from entering the United States — this is how the Holocaust happened.” Curzer noted how Jewish refugees were also under suspicion during World War II when, amid heightened national security concerns, U.S. immigration officials moved to restrict their visas, fearing they could be acting as German agents. “And that’s what’s happening to the refugees in Syria,” Curzer concluded — “that the people who are fleeing the oppressive regimes are being blamed for being part of them. And that’s not logical, and that’s not fair.”