‘Nothing Like It Since The ’60s’
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‘Nothing Like It Since The ’60s’

Synagogue activism growing as needs of immigrants and refugees deepen.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

At the Manhattan coalition's vigil in memory of the U.S. turning away the St. Louis and sending hundreds of Jews back to their deaths in Europe. Courtesy of Harold Levine
At the Manhattan coalition's vigil in memory of the U.S. turning away the St. Louis and sending hundreds of Jews back to their deaths in Europe. Courtesy of Harold Levine

As area liberal congregations ramp up their efforts on the part of undocumented immigrants — an expansion of their initial focus on Syrian refugees — they are facing an increasingly uphill battle.

Just last week, the Justice Department sued California over three state laws aimed at protecting immigrants who come to the country illegally. And across the country, including here in New York, the Trump administration is upping arrests carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Despite the legal landscape, or perhaps because of it, the issue of refugee and immigrant rights has lit a match under liberal congregations in ways that they haven’t seen since the birth of the counterculture a half-century ago.

“I think the refugee movement is something that speaks very powerfully to the Jewish community; it has to,” said Myra Miller, who chairs the social justice action committee at the Upper West Side’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

“It’s really a new thing that synagogues are working together on this scale. It’s just a very different, extraordinary, broad-based effort.

Elaine Klein, left, of B’nai Jeshurun and Charlie Davidson of Ansche Chesed organize volunteers and donations for a refugee family from Afghanistan last June. Courtesy of HIAS/Andrew Lichtenstein

“I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the ’60s,” added Miller, who was active in letter-writing campaigns protesting the Vietnam war as a young mother.

The efforts of area synagogues to protect refugees and immigrants began gaining momentum two years ago, as Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric became increasingly anti-immigrant and the Syrian refugee crisis showed no signs of ending. In June of 2016, Several Upper West Side synagogues began working together on the refugee crisis, expanding its mission to include immigrants after Trump was elected.

Now called the Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee and Immigration Crisis (SCRIC), the network has grown to include 16 synagogues in Manhattan and one in Forest Hills, Queens, as well as the Jewish nonprofits HIAS, The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and the human rights rabbinical group T’ruah.

“We’re engaging people across synagogues and across Jewish denominations … [who] don’t know each other and have never worked with each other before and it has increased capacity to do the work that needs to be done,” said the coalition’s chair, Sandy Cheiten.

Representatives from “small synagogues with very small social justice committees tend to be more active [in SCRIC] because that’s their outlet,” she said, adding that for all synagogue members, the coalition allows for more effective lobbying. “When we have met with our legislative representatives, we can say that we now represent close to 20,000 people.”

SCRIC chair Sandy Cheiten, right, works with another volunteer to deliver supplies to a refugee family from Afghanistan. Courtesy of HIAS/Andrew Lichtenstein

“I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the ’60s,” added Miller, who was active in letter-writing campaigns protesting the Vietnam war as a young mother.

The efforts of area synagogues to protect refugees and immigrants began gaining momentum two years ago, as Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric became increasingly anti-immigrant and the Syrian refugee crisis showed no signs of ending. In June of 2016, Several Upper West Side synagogues began working together on the refugee crisis, expanding its mission to include immigrants after Trump was elected.

Now called the Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee and Immigration Crisis (SCRIC), the network has grown to include 16 synagogues in Manhattan and one in Forest Hills, Queens, as well as the Jewish nonprofits HIAS, The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and the human rights rabbinical group T’ruah.

“We’re engaging people across synagogues and across Jewish denominations … [who] don’t know each other and have never worked with each other before and it has increased capacity to do the work that needs to be done,” said the coalition’s chair, Sandy Cheiten.

Representatives from “small synagogues with very small social justice committees tend to be more active [in SCRIC] because that’s their outlet,” she said, adding that for all synagogue members, the coalition allows for more effective lobbying. “When we have met with our legislative representatives, we can say that we now represent close to 20,000 people.”

Meanwhile, across the river in Brooklyn, similar coalition building was taking place. In October 2016, Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) in Park Slope created a refugee task force and soon combined with other area synagogues to form the Brownstone Brooklyn Synagogue Coalition for Refugees (BBSCR); its core members are CBE, Kane Street Synagogue, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, Kolot Cheyenu and Park Slope Jewish Center.

 

Activists with HIAS gather in front of the White House to share stories of their family members who were refugees or immigrants, March 1, 2017. (Ted Eytan)

In the 17 months since, synagogue volunteers from both coalitions have lobbied lawmakers and visited detainees, trained lawyers on asylum applications and collected supplies and money for refugees. They’ve marched, held vigils, written letters, organized panel discussions and film screenings, and accompanied immigrants to ICE hearings. The coalitions sometimes work as one group, sometimes as two, and often as cross-shul subcommittees.

“There’s just an amazing group of people who are very passionate,” said Leah Cover. “I think that there was a very strong feeling among many of the synagogues in Brooklyn of: ‘We know that we were refugees, and we owe it to other communities to help them.’

“I grew up being told: ‘Never again.’ This is a moment when we have to say never again. I want my country to be a welcoming place.”

Miller, SAJ’s social action committee chair, is one of the dozen or so people who make monthly visits to detainees in Elizabeth, N.J. She describes the facility as a “privately run warehouse with no windows.” While the men aren’t in cells — the set-up is dormitory style, “it’s a pretty difficult situation” for them, she said. While the facility has a small gym and a small library, there’s no outdoor space. “The only way you can even see the sky is on the volleyball court,” she said.

The men come from all over the world and wind up there for a variety of reasons. “They come from Asia, Africa and Latin America,” she said. “They may be applying for asylum status or been picked up for a low-level crime. … Some get to the border and are arrested, some of them have been here for 20 years and then get arrested.

“Our job,”Miller continued, “is just to be a friend and to visit. Particularly people picked up at the border, they have nobody to visit. … And some people have families who are afraid to go. … It’s an amazing, sad and difficult experience, but very human.”

Miller, SAJ’s social action committee chair, is one of the dozen or so people who make monthly visits to detainees in Elizabeth, N.J. She describes the facility as a “privately run warehouse with no windows.” While the men aren’t in cells — the set-up is dormitory style, “it’s a pretty difficult situation” for them, she said. While the facility has a small gym and a small library, there’s no outdoor space. “The only way you can even see the sky is on the volleyball court,” she said.

Congregation Rodeph Shalom on West 82nd Street in NYC will be one of the host sanctuary synagogues. Wikimedia Commons

The men come from all over the world and wind up there for a variety of reasons. “They come from Asia, Africa and Latin America,” she said. “They may be applying for asylum status or been picked up for a low-level crime. … Some get to the border and are arrested, some of them have been here for 20 years and then get arrested.

“Our job,”Miller continued, “is just to be a friend and to visit. Particularly people picked up at the border, they have nobody to visit. … And some people have families who are afraid to go. … It’s an amazing, sad and difficult experience, but very human.”

Two synagogues in Manhattan, Rodeph Sholom and Shaaray Tefila, and several synagogues from the Brownstone Brooklyn Synagogue Refugee Project — CBE, Kane Street Synagogue and Brooklyn Heights Synagogue — have registered individually with HIAS to host refugee families offsite. The Brooklyn partnership has raised $40,000 to fund the family’s initial settling-in period. “Our goal is to help them become self-sufficient,” Cover said. “We will be finding them housing, employment, schooling — we’re very excited about it.”

Because the number of refugees allowed into the country has been cut in half since Trump took office — from an average of 96,000 per year to 45,000, according to HIAS, and because most refugees end up going to smaller, less expensive areas than New York City, all three groups are still waiting to be assigned families, said SCRIC chair Cheiten.

Meanwhile, SCRIC volunteers have joined vigils in Washington Heights at Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz, which has been housing Amanda Morales Guerra, who is from Guatemala, and her three American-born daughters since August. And both coalitions have been working with the New Sanctuary Coalition, which has provided volunteers with ICE hearing accompaniment training.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared New York City a sanctuary city, instructing police to limit their cooperation with immigration authorities, the law allows ICE officials who are able to get a warrant to arrest people inside houses of worship. While hosting immigrants who are here illegally is not in itself illegal, hiding them from ICE officials is, said Marc Stern, an expert on First Amendment law.

“There’s a substantial argument that it’s harboring illegal aliens and that’s a crime. Is the government going to go after you hammer and tongs? Probably not,” he said. “You’ve got to get a jury to convict.” Although Stern is associate general counsel at AJC, he was not representing AJC views when speaking with The Jewish Week.

The government will probably go the hammer and tongs route in its suit against the State of California, because, according to Stern, it’s got a pretty strong case. “States aren’t allowed to thwart federal policy, and in this case I think it’s pretty clear that that’s what California is trying to do.”

The Trump administration has the benefit of a 2012 ruling on a similar case in which the Obama administration sued Arizona over a law aimed at cracking down on immigrants. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that federal law trumps state law when it comes to immigration matters. However, in writing the majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy left the door open for future challenges, writing that the ruling did not foreclose other “constitutional challenges to the law.” He also stressed the importance of “consultation between federal and state officials,” and noted that “the pervasiveness of federal regulation does not diminish the importance of immigration policy to the States,” because it’s the individual state that “bears many of the consequences of unlawful immigration.”

Asked whether Trump might go after New York’s sanctuary laws, Stern said, that even though within “Trump’s base there’s a long tradition of running against New York,” in terms of immigration law, “New York hasn’t gone as far as California, and I think our officials by and large have been more circumspect about it.”

While no synagogue in New York City has plans to house refugees in their own buildings, Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist shul in Montclair, N.J., announced in December that it plans to allow undocumented immigrants to stay on the temple property if they are in danger of being deported. Bnai Keshet is unusual in that its educational building is located on the site of a former mansion and until recently, the third floor had been kept as an apartment.

While the Brooklyn coalition is more of a loose network, the Manhattan coalition has developed a formal governance structure, launched a professional website and begun advising synagogues in other cities about setting up similar coalitions.

“This is really pretty wide and deep, Miller said, “as much as anything in the last almost 50 years.”

 

 

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