Jews Across America Are Rising Up Against Trump's Refugee Ban: 'We Haven't Forgotten Our History'

American rabbis planning to create a network of 'sanctuary congregations' to provide safe haven for those affected by the ban.

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NEW YORK – Two weeks ago, a small group of congregants from three New Jersey synagogues eagerly waited at Newark Airport for the newest members of their community to arrive. The family they awaited was Syrian and arriving from Turkey, where the parents and their three daughters, ages 6 to 20, had remained for more than a year while being approved to immigrate to the United States.

“They got here in the nick of time,” said Jesse Olitzky, rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, one of the partners in the effort. He was referring to the door that has slammed shut on refugees from Syria since President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday barring them indefinitely, and also suspending nationals from seven other Muslim-majority countries from travel to the United States.

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The other synagogues welcoming the refugee family in South Orange and Maplewood, N.J., are Oheb Shalom Congregation, which like Beth El is a Conservative synagogue, and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform congregation. They are three of a several synagogues and many churches across the U.S. who are providing critical assistance to newly admitted refugees. Now with the new directive from Trump, the flow of newcomers will slow substantially.

The president’s executive order also halted for 120 days the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and cut what, under his predecessor Barack Obama, had been the total of 110,000 refugees permitted entry into the U.S. in 2017, to a maximum of 50,000.

Trump has also pledged to slash funding to any city or county that acts as a sanctuary jurisdiction and does not cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in deporting undocumented immigrants. The 10 largest city and county governments are at risk of losing $2.27 billion in federal funding if that happens.

What appears to be a tidal wave of resistance to Trump’s immigration-related plans and orders has been unleashed – with strong Jewish participation. On Saturday, thousands of people spontaneously went to the arrivals terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as soon as the news ricocheted via phone lines and cyberspace that even refugees with all the necessary permits and visas in place were being detained.

Joel Mosbacher, senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, at a protest at JFK Airport against President Trump's ban on Muslim refugees, Jan. 30, 2017.Credit: Aliza Nussbaum Cohen

Thousands more attended a demonstration Sunday in Lower Manhattan, in sight of the Statue of Liberty – a beacon of hope to Jewish immigrants and other newcomers of every ethnic background to this country – since it was dedicated in 1886. The Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” is engraved on its base, inviting “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to enter America.

Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, education director at HIAS (an organization created in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe), was at JFK airport on Saturday evening. She conducted the Havdalah service marking the end of Shabbat there, after darkness fell, with Joel Mosbacher, senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila on Manhattan's Upper East Side, backing her on his guitar.

Mosbacher told Haaretz that he had gotten word of the protest from another "T’ruah chaver" – as the 1,800 rabbis and cantors affiliated with the nonprofit T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights group are called – while walking home from synagogue on Saturday. He went right to the airport where two dozen or so people had already gathered, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), to advocate for two men with visas who were being prohibited from leaving the airport.

Later they were joined by thousands more protesters. When Mosbacher and others left the penned-in area they were assigned to, they were confronted by police wearing riot gear. Eventually the demonstrators backed down, Mosbacher said.

Being at the JFK protest Saturday “felt meaningful, it felt strategic and like we had the potential to make a real impact on this issue,” Mosbacher told Haaretz. “I fear there will be the need to do things like this many more times in the coming weeks and months.”

Safe havens

HIAS is planning a similar protest in Lower Manhattan on February 12th, and other organizations are scheduling similar actions for Presidents’ Day, commemorated in the U.S. on February 20th.

With large numbers of American Jews feeling galvanized by Trump's policies on immigration, a growing number of synagogues want to participate in the so-called sanctuary movement. That movement started in the 1980s, when U.S. churches and other places of worship provided safe haven to undocumented immigrants fleeing wars in Central America.

For its part, T'ruah plans to harness this mounting interest at a three-day training program that it is organizing on February 5-7, for rabbis and cantors only, at Congregation B’nai Jeshrun on the Upper West Side. The 175 participants will learn how to create sanctuary communities, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T'ruah’s executive director, in an interview with Haaretz on Sunday.

Specifically, the three-day event is aimed at launching a better-organized Jewish network of sanctuary congregations, Jacobs said, and will cover everything ranging from how to respond to anti-Semitic attacks to acting as allies to others who are being attacked. The participants will stage their own pro-immigrant demonstration on Monday, February 6, at 7 P.M., which will be open to public participation. Registration was full almost as soon as it opened, noted Jacobs, adding that T’ruah has been asked to run a similar program on the West Coast.

“Our people haven’t forgotten our history,” she said. “The strong Jewish voice we’ve seen” at protests around the country this weekend “shows that we remember what it is to be immigrants.”

At present it is thought that churches, synagogues and mosques, along with schools and hospitals, are “sensitive spaces” into which field agents from the ICE will not ordinarily go in pursuit of undocumented immigrants, Jacobs said. However, she added, it is not clear how much longer those spaces will be respected.

In December the Washington, D.C.-based anti-immigrant think tank Center for Immigration Studies reported that there are some 300 sanctuary jurisdictions in the U.S., meaning that they generally refuse to cooperate with immigration officials in deporting undocumented immigrants.

President Trump has pledged to cut funding to those locales, many of them with substantial Jewish populations, if they don’t give up their status as sanctuaries. Mayors and attorneys general from California to New York have called his plan unconstitutional, and affirmed the intent to have their cities and counties remain sanctuaries.

Ordinarily, many American Jewish organizations would be working behind the scenes on an issue like this one, through back channels and the White House Jewish liaison. But chaos reigns at the new administration, said Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of national government affairs and rabbi-in-residence for Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a social justice organization.

“With previous administrations going way back there was a Jewish liaison. Now I wouldn’t even know whom to call,” he told Haaretz. In any case, “we’re not that interested in mediating with this administration. What was said on the campaign trail and is being followed through in this first week is so egregious that the most important thing we can do is to fight, and prevent more harm from being done.

"I am not all that interested in cajoling for a kinder and gentler Muslim ban and having maybe one country taken off the list. We have to have an outpouring of people, of conscience, to try to tip the scales of power," said Kimelman-Block.

Bend the Arc has mobilized its members around the country to attend protests in recent days and to contact their Congressional representatives in an effort to block some of Trump’s nominees to key positions, like U.S. attorney general.

Widespread protests

Within hours of the news last Wednesday that Trump would soon implement what is widely considered to be a “Muslim ban,” since it affects only refugees of that religion, Bend the Arc mobilized members to demonstrate in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and New York City.

“What’s happening right now is bigger than any one organization or community,” Kimelman-Block told Haaretz. “You don’t see a sea of organization-printed signs. People are just showing up.”

Meanwhile, back in Newark Airport, just six people, chairmen of the resettlement committee from each South Orange and Maplewood synagogue, awaited the Syrian family’s arrival. Church World Service, the sanctuary organization with which the synagogues are working, had recommended that the group be small and that no photos be taken so as not to overwhelm the new arrivals.

The Jewish New Jerseyans had been busy for the three weeks prior, procuring and preparing an apartment for the family. It is on a quiet suburban street, close to shopping and public transportation, said Olitzky, where some other synagogue members live.

Congregants filled closets with winter clothing and the refrigerator and pantry with food and other provisions. Synagogue members fluent in Arabic are serving as translators for the family, and others drive them to appointments with doctors and social service agencies. Some are tutoring the parents and their daughters in English and others are accompanying them on their first visits to a local supermarket and Target — totally new experiences for the refugee family members, Olitzky noted. Their names are being kept out of the press to preserve their privacy and for fear of retribution against relatives still in Syria.

Welcoming them “has been a sliver of light for us as a community, and not just the three synagogues,” Olitzky told Haaretz.

“We’ve had people of all faiths and ethnicities volunteer to help resettle this family. It’s a time when we feel hopeless and helpless,” he added, in the face of executive orders being issued from the White House.

“Being given an opportunity to make a difference," said Olitzky, "even if it’s for one family, has reminded our larger community of the impact that we can have.”

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