Build Sukkot, Not Walls

Rabbis Take Their anti-Trump Protest to 'White House North'

Drawing inspiration from the current festival of Sukkot, rabbinic activists descended on Trump Tower to decry the president's anti-immigration and anti-refugee agenda

Rabbi Rachel Kahn Troster, T’ruah’s director of programs (left) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director, protest at Trump Tower, October 9, 2017.
Christopher Parks / West End Str

NEW YORK – On the holiday of Sukkot, temporary sukkah dwellings are commonly scattered across New York City. But one sukkah was quickly put up – and soon dismantled – on Fifth Avenue, right outside Trump Tower.

“Welcoming guests is an integral part of the holiday of Sukkot,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a 1,800-member network of rabbis and cantors.

As she put it, “President Trump’s executive orders and other policies break up families, turn refugees away from our shores – the very opposite of the sense of welcome that has defined our country’s history.”

Claiming that the president’s “anti-welcome” policies are antithetical to Jewish and American values, two dozen rabbis – men and women covered in prayer shawls – walked Monday morning from Central Park to Trump Tower, widely known as White House North. Once in front of the building, they quickly stretched out a small, symbolic sukkah and topped it with a wooden cover as required by tradition.

After the demonstrators were requested by the police to vacate the passageway, they relocated to a vacant spot alongside the building, where they protested uninterrupted.

Rabbi Mira Rivera of Harlem Hevruta (left) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Truah, carry the sukkah on 5th Avenue, October 9, 2017.
Christopher Parks / West End Str

As they prayed and sang together, they held up a sign that read “Build Sukkot, Not Walls,” and other posters relaying biblical messages including “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh” and “My father was a Syrian refugee” from the Book of Deuteronomy.

Rabbi Jose Rolando Matalon of the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, an Argentine immigrant, said the current administration’s immigration policies went against fundamental Jewish and American values.

“Knowing my background, I’m outraged by what I see in terms of immigrants and refugees, the closing of the doors, putting at risk 800,000 people who came here as children with their parents,” Matalon said.

“Now there’s a whole negotiation over them to trade their well-being and safety here for all sorts of other draconian measures about borders and about walls. I’m revolted by this,” he added, referring to the administration’s latest offer of hard-line immigration policies in exchange for legislation protecting so-called Dreamers, immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.  

In addition to Donald Trump’s efforts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the main issues the religious group came to protest were the travel ban, raids by the immigration authorities and the plans for a border wall. These actions and policies, the group says, “pander to the nativism and racism that have been prevalent this past year.”

Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, director of education for community engagement at HIAS, said that as a refugee organization that has been around for 136 years, this is “a particularly devastating moment. In the midst of what is really the worst refugee crisis in history, we’re seeing actions taken to pull out the welcome mat for refugees.”

Grant Meyer also reflected on the rise in overt anti-Semitism in the United States. “I do think it’s part and parcel of a culture that is permitting this kind of hate, and it gives us all the more reason to be out and talking about Jewish values and the value of loving the stranger,” she said.

At the rally, Matalon called into a megaphone: “Those values need to be returned and restored to our country now.” The march then continued peacefully down the block, following a ceremonial blow of the shofar.

“We want to draw attention to the issues, lest anybody not understand the massive attack that this administration is launching on immigrants,” Jacobs said. “We want to say that is not acceptable.”

Jacobs and others were arrested during a demonstration in February, protesting outside the Trump International Hotel against Trump's first Muslim ban.

In September, the White House announced new travel restrictions on travel from Venezuela, Chad and North Korea, in addition to Muslim-majority countries banned for the last three months, including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Iran.

In a statement, the White House called the restrictions a “critical step toward establishing an immigration system that protects Americans’ safety and security in an era of dangerous terrorism and transnational crime.”

Earlier last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA, which shields some young undocumented immigrants from deportation, was being rescinded. The decision was followed by an outpouring of criticism, including from leaders in the American Jewish community.

“This decision is morally misguided, damaging to American communities, heartless to the 800,000 people who participate in the program, and violates a core Jewish value and lesson from history to welcome the stranger,” wrote Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.