'Jewish Rally for Refugees' in New York Invokes Struggle of Holocaust Survivor Grandparents

Overlooking Ellis Island, thousands of Jews gathered to demand that Muslim refugees be let in to the U.S. 'Those same people who sent Jews back to the Third Reich never left,' said Rep. Keith Ellison.

Protesters display placards during the Jewish Rally for Refugees at Battery Park in New York, February 12, 2017.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

NEW YORK - Thousands of American Jews gathered Sunday in New York's Battery Park to protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order and in support of refugees. With a misty Statue of Liberty looming in the background, flanked by ferries taking tourists to visit nearby Ellis Island, the memory of the Holocaust - at the center of the struggle for many grandparents who have sought refuge in this very harbor - was a common theme throughout the rally.

Laura Clark, a 50-year-old New Yorker who came to the rally with her 13-year-old daughter Aliana, was dressed as Lady Liberty. She held a sign that read “Emma Lazarus was a Jew,” on one side, and “proud granddaughter of immigrant sheepherder Joaquin Solosabal" on the other.

“I’m here as a granddaughter of an immigrant who came to the US through Ellis Island,” Clark told Haaretz.  “M grandfather was a sheep herder and came here with $20 in his pocket. And his descendants are six college graduates, a member of the National Guard and teachers in public schools who are helping disabled students. We are America and I’m proud to be a descendent of refugees. I think Jews should be clear about treating the stranger as they would like to be treated."

Joshua, who refuses to say his family name, is standing on a rock holding with a sign that reads “What would bubby say?” On the opposite side, the answer: “Such a Shande.”

Laura Clark at the Jewish Rally for Refugees in New York, February 12, 2017.
Taly Krupkin

“I’m here to represent my bubby, my Jewish grandmother, she is 96 years young, she has lived for so long, and fought for so much,” explained Joshua. “She has asked me to fight for her in my activism and to remind people that there is a whole generation of bubbles who remember World War II and the Holocaust and blacklisting, like she was blacklisted in the 50s - she was an opera singer at the Met. it should give us power, because bubbies give us power. ”

Many held signs referring to their bubbies, and a few even tried to shame Jared Kushner, whose grandmother was a refugee, with a sign that read, “Jared, what would your bubby say?”

The rally was organized by HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, and similar events were held in other cities across the U.S. including the participation of over 1,900 American rabbis in 48 states and more than 260 congregations across the country. As rabbis from different Jewish organizations took the stage one by one, members of the audience clutched their umbrellas, protecting themselves in vain from the hail, as temperatures dropped below freezing.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), currently running for Democratic National Committee chair, took stage under the pouring rain. In a passionate speech, Ellison slammed Trump’s administration for failing to mention Jews in the official statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day. “Those same people who sent Jews back to the Third Reich never left”’ he said. “We will stand up, we will stand together and we will say, refugees are welcome here.”

Matthew at the Jewish Rally for Refugees in New York, February 12, 2017.
Taly Krupkin

Other volunteers and rabies standing behind the stage were hopping in place in keep warm, yet the crowd was not ready to disperse. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl from New York's Central Synagogue, known as the first Asian American to be ordained as cantor or rabbi in North America, performed “Hine Ma Tov “and “America the Beautiful" at the event.

“I’m proud of the Jewish community coming together for this crisis. There are times when we are called as Jews to stand with our moral conscience, and our prophetic tradition tells us there are moments when one must act,” she told Haaretz.

Popular Novelist Gary Steyngart, author of bestselling “The Russian Debutante's Handbook” and “Little Failure,” whose family came to the U.S. as refugees from St. Petersburg, Russia with the help of HIAS, congratulated the crowd for showing up despite the horrible weather, which he said reminded him of the Soviet Union.

“To not raise your voice, to stay silent in this horrible time is inappropriate, we are all in this together," he told Haaretz. “As a Soviet refuge, facing anti-Semitism and escaping a hell hole, frankly, these people are fleeing something much worse than anything imaginable in the Soviet Union,” he said of the refugees from the seven Muslim-majority countries included in Trump's executive order.

Federal judges have halted Trump's ban, though the president has threatened to issue a new executive order as early as this week. Moreover, reports over the weekend have suggested that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have started raiding immigrant communities in New York and other states. Steyngart, like others at the rally, is concerned. 

“The are switching tactics, they are going to use the ICE," he said. “Everyone is New York has to bound together to protect them, New York is a very dense city, we all know someone, our doorman could be a refugee, we have to protect them in a very real way”.