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Efforts to ‘protect the stranger’ bring court appearance
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Efforts to ‘protect the stranger’ bring court appearance

Rabbis plead not guilty to trespassing

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston told a small crowd outside the Westfield Township Municipal courthouse on the morning of Feb. 20: “When there is injustice we need to put our faith into action.”

Dantowitz is one of two Essex County rabbis who pleaded not guilty to defiant trespassing after a sit-in at the Westfield office of Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) 15 days earlier. The second rabbi is Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair. 

They joined two Montclair ministers, Rev. Ann Ralosky and her associate pastor, John Rogers of the First Congregational Church, and two lay activists, Kristin Peck of Summit and Nedia Morsy of Elizabeth, in entering their plea. (Morsy was not present at the preliminary hearing, nor was a prosecutor who does not attend preliminary hearings in Westfield.) No one from Lance’s office attended the hearing, either.

On Feb. 5 the protesters refused to leave Lance’s office after its 5 p.m. closing time, were promptly taken into custody, and released without bail. The sit-in followed a rally urging Lance’s support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). 

The program has allowed some 800,000 illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country and work, attend school, or serve in the military. These residents are informally known as “Dreamers.” 

The order is set to expire March 5 unless Congress passes legislation allowing them to remain. An estimated 4,000 Dreamers live in the Seventh Congressional District, according to Faith in New Jersey. 

Lance has said in the past he has supported DACA but has also pledged to “work closely with his colleagues and the administration” to pass “meaningful immigration reforms,” according to a September 2017 press release. 

After the demonstrators entered their plea, Judge Parag Patel adjourned the proceedings without setting a follow-up date for a trial. He said that the complaint could be resolved by future mediation or a possible plea bargain.

“They are pleading not guilty because their actions were justified by morality,” said defense attorney Bennett Zurofsky after the hearing. “They are citizens simply trying to communicate forcefully with their congressperson and that should not be illegal.”

Zurofsky said he believed there was a “good chance” the case may be dismissed or a plea deal arranged with the prosecutor. But he told NJJN after the hearing, “if we go to trial, morality will prevail over the strict letter of the law.”

Following the 15-minute hearing, the defendants and their supporters from the immigration rights movement gathered on the steps outside the courthouse to address some 30 supporters who stood on the grass a few feet away.

Tepperman cited a biblical text that says, “there shall be one law for the citizen among you and for the stranger who dwells beside you,” calling it a “really simple commandment” that is repeated 36 times in the Bible.

“We need to protect the stranger,” he said. “Ancient Israelites knew that we have to be careful when there are vulnerable people standing beside us. They figured it out and yet somehow our society hasn’t figured it out.”

He urged people to “demand one law” for all who reside in the U.S. 

Sara Mora, a dreamer who lives in Hillside after moving with her family from Costa Rica at the age of 3, told those gathered, “[Dreamers] are in fear and they have a right to be in fear because they grew up in a place that is now telling them they need to leave.” 

Rev. Ralosky spoke of the anxieties Dreamers face. “The experience that the life you had been dreaming for and preparing for might be taken away from you at any moment is something I cannot even imagine.”

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