For 40 rabbis and cantors, the journey across the border into Mexico last week was a journey toward empathy. And, for the two Jewish groups that sponsored the trip, one hopefully toward action.
Most of the clergy had traveled to California (some are based there) to join in an action June 2 with the immigrant organization Mijente. The next day they crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana, Mexico, to visit shelters for migrants seeking asylum in the United States and to understand the experience of such a crossing for themselves.
The group was organized through a partnership between T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and HIAS, an immigrant advocacy and resettlement organization. Both organizations have been at the forefront of Jewish communal opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. In crossing the border, the organizations hoped to further educate their members about the realities on the ground.
Members of T’ruah and HIAS were part of a Jewish bloc at the Mijente protests in San Diego. The actions, joined by over 1,000 people, were in opposition to Operation Streamline (the Trump administration policy to criminally prosecute those who cross the border without authorization), and against family separation. Mijente’s platform calls for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Neither HIAS nor T’ruah has yet taken a position on the #AbolishIce movement, though both participated in Mijente’s actions.
According to Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, T’ruah’s deputy director, “What we’re hoping from the rabbis and cantors is that they will make their shuls sanctuary synagogues; sanctuary is the act of housing someone who is an undocumented immigrant threatened with deportation, but also really a commitment to immigrant defense.” T’ruah coordinates a 70-congregration sanctuary network called Mikdash.
For Rabbi Kahn-Troster, though she was educated about the situation, traveling to the border made the issue deeply personal. Witnessing “the tears of migrant mothers,” and citing her two children, she reflected, “I can’t even begin to imagine what the women who come to the border are going through. What would it mean for me if I was separated from my children?”
When we think about immigration, we need to do all that we can do to remind ourselves that the people being affected are human beings created in the image of God, and that calls us as Jews to speak out.
She added, “When we think about immigration, we need to do all that we can do to remind ourselves that the people being affected are human beings created in the image of God, and that calls us as Jews to speak out.”
Liz Sweet, HIAS’ general counsel and chief human resources officer, also traveled across the border. According to Sweet, who has spent significant time working at the U.S.-Mexico border, “a lot of the people who chose to come already had some basic level of knowledge about these issues, but it was an opportunity to deepen that, and have that personal witness experience which often inspires so many of us to take more action.”
Sweet said that HIAS aims for the Jewish community to engage in self-education and advocacy, and “to realize that it’s happening on the border but also in so many of our communities, where so many of these asylum-seekers are ultimately going to be seeking protection.”
Addressing the responsibility of Jewish institutions, Rabbi Kahn-Troster said, “We use the immigrant narrative so much to talk about who we are as an American Jewish community. It’s now time for all of our institutions, whether it’s the big ones or the small ones, to raise our voices and say, ‘This is not OK.’”