Sanctuary Synagogues Throughout U.S. Feel Urgency to Protect Immigrants and Stand Up Against Trump

A growing number of congregations across the U.S. are announcing themselves as 'sanctuary synagogues,' offering refuge and assistance to those who might be affected by Trump's new immigration policies.

A demonstrator holds up a sign during a rally held by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to mark a National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees, New York, February 12, 2017.
Julie Jacobson/AP

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have seen a number of decisions by the new administration affecting immigration and immigrants in the United States – from the short-lived “Muslim ban” executive order, to the new Department of Homeland Security guidelines on deportations.

These steps were met with protests from many U.S. Jewish organizations that emphasized the Jewish community’s own long history of immigration. For some, however, protesting against Trump’s measures on immigration is not enough. That’s why in recent weeks, a growing number of synagogues across the United States have announced themselves as “sanctuary synagogues,” offering refuge and assistance to those who might be affected by the new policies.

Two weeks ago, The Forward reported that close to ten synagogues have already made such a declaration. One of those synagogues is Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., which belongs to the Reform movement. Rabbi Jonathan Roos, the congregation’s senior rabbi, told Haaretz this week what it means to become a “sanctuary synagogue” and why he believed it was the right time for congregations across the country to take such a stand.

“We did this after several weeks of investigating what it would mean, what we would practically be able to do and what kind of public position that would take for us,” he explained. “We understand as part of our Jewish heritage and our religious values that welcoming the stranger and ensuring that the most vulnerable in society are protected, is at the heart of what we believe.”

Roos said he saw a direct link between this decision and “the history of our people, from the ancient times with the exodus from Egypt, to modern times – the holocaust, the Soviet Refuseniks and other events. Our story is a story of refugees, so both for our religious values and our historical experience, we believe that this is one of the most important issues for us to be involved in today.”

Rabbi Jonathan Roos on sanctuary synagogues Haaretz.com

On the practical level, he added, “to be a sanctuary synagogue can mean several things. One is for a congregation to actually house on its property people who are facing or fearing immediate or impending deportation or arrest. That is one of the main things that we're willing to do – we don't have someone staying in our synagogue yet, but we are willing to do it.”

“Another is getting trained and providing members of the community who could help others to know their rights, anyone who is an immigrant who is concerned about their status and rights can learn from our members about what they can and can't do, and what are their rights here in America.”

The interview with Roos took place on the sidelines of the 2017 J Street conference in Washington, which he attended. Roos said that in his opinion, “the decision to become a sanctuary congregation is one of the most significant ways that Jews today can connect to the ancient biblical values and the Talmudic sources, and to our history as a people.”