On a warm Sunday morning, Deb Levy of Montclair drove to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility with two of her sons, Asher, 14, and Zane, 11. “I’d say I came because I’m shocked, but I’m kind of not shocked anymore,” she said. “I’m disgusted at history repeating itself and nobody noticing or listening or hearing.”
Levy’s family was among the more than 500 people to attend a Father’s Day rally at the detention center on June 17 to protest the separation of children from parents caught illegally crossing into the United States. Approximately 2,000 such children were separated from their parents during a six-week period between April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The detention center in Elizabeth is operated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The rally was organized by Make the Road New Jersey, launched in 2014 to support immigrant communities. It was cosponsored by a variety of civic groups, including Faith in New Jersey, a multi-faith network with a social and economic justice agenda; First Friends, which provides volunteer visitation, resettlement assistance, and advocacy to detained immigrants and asylum seekers; and the ACLU.
Many Jews, including six rabbis associated with Faith in New Jersey, were in attendance, and a common theme was that the echoes of the Holocaust and the rise of Adolf Hitler are apparent in current U.S. policies.
“To see children ripped out of their parents’ arms — it certainly brings back reminders of what the Jewish people went through in the Shoah, as children were being torn from their parents and children told they were going for a shower,” said Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. “It’s just a nightmare happening in daylight.”
Several major Jewish organizations have come out against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that calls for prosecuting all those who enter the U.S. illegally, one consequence being that parents who are charged are being separated from their children.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, associate rabbi of B’nai Keshet in Montclair, said it is “the most pressing human rights issue happening in our country today,” and Scott Krieger, president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, called the practice “a cruel contradiction of the values we aspire to as Jews and as Americans,” in a statement released on June 18.
Five days earlier, the Anti-Defamation League drafted a letter signed by 25 Jewish organizations and sent to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemning the policy. Signatories included the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service, B’nai B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, National Council of Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, and the Orthodox Union. Agudath Israel of America did not sign the letter but published a statement on its website calling for an end to the “loathsome” policy.
At Sunday’s event, directors of the sponsoring organizations addressed the crowd, but for many protesters, their intention was to make a statement through their presence.
“I want people in the detention center to know there are people here who support them,” said Julia Luck, who brought her two children, ages 2 and 4, with her. “I want them to feel loved and know there are people fighting for them.”
Protesters lined the road leading to the center, sometimes chanting “Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here,” and held printed and homemade signage that included slogans such as “Forced Separation is Inhumane and UnAmerican” and “Where are USA’s Family Values?”
A few cars drove through the rally to visit loved ones detained in the facility, some of the passengers noticeably crying.
Five rabbis stood beside Archange Antoine, head of Faith in New Jersey, when he addressed the crowd calling for more love and less hate. The son of Haitian immigrants who sought asylum in the U.S., he said, “This great country went from a country that was embracing families to come … to being a country that is now locking up people who are seeking safety, who are locking up family members and snatching children from their mothers and their fathers.
“This is not the country we want and we will not stop — and we will not stop fighting back until we get our country back.”
In addition to Dantowitz, the rabbis standing with Antoine included Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains; David Levy, N.J. director of American Jewish Committee; Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange; and Elliott Tepperman of B’nai Keshet.
Some of the protesters, like Eva Sandroff of Teaneck, were themselves immigrants. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Sandroff was born in Germany on the day the Nuremburg laws were announced in 1936. “If I weren’t accepted [into the United States] all those many years ago, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
“As someone who is Jewish, you see what’s happening in this country and you see these terrible parallels to what’s happened to our people in the past,” said Tamara Freuman of Nyack, N.Y. “How can I sit by and not speak up and not stand up for what’s right when I see all these inhumane things happening to other human beings?”
Even though some parents chose to bring their children, ranging from babies to teenagers, to the rally, Freuman decided to come without her 7-year-old twins.
“How do you explain to a 7-year-old that our government, the people who we elect and who represent us, are taking children away from their parents, especially parents who are coming here because their lives are in danger and they are coming here seeking asylum?” she asked. “If they knew, it would shatter their belief that the world is good.”
Asher Lovy of Linden was critical of his Orthodox peers who support the administration’s crackdown on immigration. “We’re supposed to be people who value human life above everything else,” he said. “Our entire Torah is negated by the need to save one life, and somehow we’re OK with a country that does this? We’re OK with people in our community who support this? I’m here to say I’m disgusted by this policy. It’s antithetical to the spirit of what America is, it’s antithetical to the Torah and what the spirit of Judaism is, and we should have no part of it.”
Like Lovy, Shoshana Isenberg of Morristown made a conscious choice to stand out as an Orthodox Jew. Instead of the wig she often wears to cover her hair, she chose a headscarf, the thinking being that a scarf would make her more obviously Orthodox than a wig. “I thought ‘Yes, this is the time to be visible,’” she said.
“This whole policy has been extremely distressing to me as a mother, as a Jew, as an American, and I’m trying to do what small thing I can to make a difference.” A child psychologist, she said, “I’m particularly aware and sensitive to the long-term damage and effect of separation from parents.”
Victoria Cook, an alumna of the Jewish Education Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth and now a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said she is committed to “true Torah values,” like “keeping families together, loving the stranger, welcoming the immigrant.”
In separating children from their parents, she said, “There’s so many echoes of everything that’s happened to us, not just 70 years ago, but over thousands of years of what it means to be the Jewish people.” Jews, she said, will be targeted next if “we don’t use our ancestral memory to say, ‘Never again’ means now, and it’s for everyone.”
Tepperman, who leads the Reconstructionist B’nai Keshet, said that one shouldn’t need the Torah to know that these policies are immoral. “Truth be told, even if we lived in a world without Torah, it would be obvious that separating a child from their parents is not acceptable,” he said.
Partway through the rally, organizers announced that six Democratic members of Congress from New York and New Jersey were attempting to make a surprise visit to the detention center but were being turned away. The rally turned temporarily into a march to support them. The lawmakers included Bill Pascrell (N.J.-Dist. 9), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.-Dist. 10), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.-Dist. 8), Frank Pallone (N.J.-Dist. 6), Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.-Dist. 12), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.-Dist. 13), and Albio Sires (N.J.-Dist. 8).
The six were eventually admitted and, following a short visit with detainees, they returned to the rally site. Pascrell addressed the crowd.
“What’s going on here in Elizabeth is not acceptable, and should not be acceptable to anyone,” he said. “It’s Father’s Day, dammit, and you have a right to talk to your children, and you don’t even know where your children are. That’s unacceptable.”