Rabbis Arrested During Passover-themed Pro-immigrant Rallies in L.A. and N.Y.

In both protests, the participating interfaith groups used holiday symbolism to call for better treatment for immigrants

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen being arrested at the interfaith protest in Los Angeles, April 13, 2017.
Courtesy Bend the Arc Jewish Action/Jason Lipeles

NEW YORK - Jewish protesters participating in Passover-themed demonstrations against the deportation of immigrants were arrested in New York and Los Angeles on Thursday.

In New York, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice organized a “Seder in the Street” to protest aggressive police tactics and a lack of protection for undocumented immigrants, who are increasingly afraid that any encounter with police could lead to them being turned over to immigration authorities.

Some 400 people attended the seder, which began outside of City Hall. The protesters saved an empty seat for Mayor Bill deBlasio, but he did not attend. The interfaith group, which included controversial Muslim leader Linda Sarsour, then marched to nearby Foley Square. At this point six people passed through blue cloth that was being waved by other protestors and was supposed to represent the Red Sea. Then they stood in the street and blocked traffic. They were arrested and held briefly on charges of disorderly conduct, JFREJ Executive Director Andrea Sasson said.

Dania Rajendra, daughter of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and non-Jewish father from India, was one of those arrested. “I’m the proud daughter of an immigrant and see around me how my immigrant friends and neighbors are scared about the collaboration between police and ICE,” she told Haaretz after she was released. “I need New York to be the kind of city that it was for my Jewish ancestors who fled pogroms and Eastern Europe, and for my own dad. That’s the city I want to be a part of, the vision of liberation I see when I do seder with my friends and family.”

JFREJ’s action “was an opportunity for us to honor and celebrate our liberation story from slavery to freedom, and frame it in a moment when we’re all struggling to advance sanctuary in this city,” Sasson told Haaretz. Her organization is pushing the city to pass the Right to Know Act, legislation which would help protect undocumented immigrants by requiring police to identify themselves as soon as they stop someone and, if they don’t have a warrant, obtain someone’s verbal consent before conducting a search. While that is an existing constitutional right, it is routinely violated, Sasson said.

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen was one of 35 Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders arrested on Thursday. They were part of a crowd of 300 which marched from La Placito, a Latino area, to the Metropolitan Detention Center, where those arrested by immigration authorities are held before being deported or transferred to other prisons.

Linda Sarsour and other protesters demonstrating at New York City's City Hall, April 13, 2017.
Gili Getz

Dubbed “An Interfaith Day of Prophetic Action - Standing with Immigrant and Refugee Families,” it was co-sponsored by Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, two local synagogues and a panoply of other religious and labor groups, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Muslim Public Affairs Council to the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference affiliate and Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Zen Buddhist groups.

Cohen teaches at the Conservative movement’s American Jewish University rabbinical school and serves as Bend the Arc’s rabbi-in-residence.

The protest was pointedly timed to fall during the Jewish and Christian holidays of liberation, according to its Facebook announcement. “This call to seek the liberation of all, and the commandment to love one another, also resonates with many other faith traditions, whether expressed in the universal Golden Rule or other sacred texts and traditions,” said the announcement. “This call is no sanguine invitation. Rather, it is an Amber alert, an S.O.S., an emergency rapid response directive to love one another, to stick together, to look out and risk for each other, to build a unified resistance of love against the world’s hatred."

It went on to say, “We will not stand idle in the face of increased, aggressive ICE enforcement wreaking havoc in our congregations, and impacting our friends, families, and neighbors” and called on elected officials at the local and state levels to “work swiftly and cooperatively” on immigration policy reform.

The 3-hour protest included a table in the middle of the crowd, on which were matzah, kosher wine and bitter herbs. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, an Orthodox rabbi retired from his position as UCLA’s Hillel director, broke the middle matzah much as is done during a Passover seder. This time, however, it represented the families broken by the immigration detention system, Cohen said.

Christian priests washed the feet of detained immigrants’ family members to mark Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter commemorating Jesus’ last supper.

The event ended with Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita of Temple Emanu-El of Beverly Hills, offering a prayer for redemption.

It was the biggest interfaith demonstration in L.A. since Trump took office and began issuing executive orders impacting immigrants, said Cohen.

Five of those arrested for failure to comply with police order to disperse were rabbis. All were released within about an hour of being taken to a nearby police station, Cohen said.

In the van for the two block ride to the police station, Cohen said, “we said shechechiyanu [the blessing for new experiences] for a couple of folks for whom it was their first arrest.” It was, he said, his fourth civil disobedience arrest in the past five years.