U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ Dist. 11) may have been out of the country on April 15, but the 35 people gathered in front of his office building in Morristown that evening hoped he got their message anyway.
Organized by Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, participants held blue-and-white braided candles and participated in a Havdalah ceremony interspersed with traditional Hebrew songs and American folk melodies such as “Shema Yisrael” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The gathering, dubbed a “liberation Havdalah,” focused on immigration and refugee issues, and on welcoming the stranger.
“Our congregation is deeply concerned about immigrant rights and about the effort to bring in and welcome all refugees into this country,” Tepperman told NJJN. “So many people in our synagogue have personal histories of having been refugees, of having been immigrants.” He added that the timing of the event, during Passover, held its own message. “Passover is the holiday of saying you were an immigrant [in Egypt]. It was unsafe. You were abused because you were an immigrant. Now remember that, and make sure you never do the same thing to others.”
Frelinghuysen declined Bnai Keshet’s invitation to discuss with them immigration and refugee issues. The congressman, who is chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, “is in a position to decide things like how much funding is going to go to building a wall [along the Mexican border], and how much funding is going to go to things like” enforcement of immigration laws targeting undocumented aliens, said Tepperman. “We’d like to say, ‘Not so much.’”
The rabbi urged those gathered to call Frelinghuysen’s office about these issues. “This is a standing invitation,” he said. “The Jewish community of his district invites him to Havdalah, invites him to tell his own family story of how they landed in America, and to hear our stories, and how those stories lead us to whatever conclusion we reach in welcoming the stranger.”
The event drew people not only from Montclair but also from nearby towns and some in Morris and Sussex counties. Bnai Keshet members Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg of Montclair, the husband-and-wife team behind the Jewish bluegrass group Nefesh Mountain, led the singing.
Tepperman was joined by other Montclair-area clergy, including Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, assistant rabbi and director of congregational learning at Bnai Keshet; Cantor Meredith Greenberg of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield; and Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. No Morristown clergy attended.
Bnai Keshet member Dinah Hendon of Verona said she joined the group because she is “extraordinarily concerned about this issue…. I’m someone who has called the congressman often and sat in on his town hall, and I find his answers not really direct to very direct questions. And I think it’s important to have some answers, especially about this issue of the refugees.” She was referring to a little-publicized, invitation-only phone conference Frelinghuysen held on Feb. 21 after weeks of requests from constituents for a town hall meeting. He hasn’t held a traditional town hall meeting in over three years.
John King, an immigrant from Ireland, attended the gathering because his wife, Mia Schoper King, is a member of Bnai Keshet. He enjoyed the Havdalah ceremony, saying it was “lively” and that the other participants “are very friendly,” but he was less sure about the ideas expressed by Tepperman and others regarding immigration. “I don’t think it’s so bad [to restrict immigration],” said King. “With what’s going on with the bombings all over Europe, it might help a bit if we stop people coming in. How else are we going to stop people from driving a truck into a gathering like this?”
Vivian Perlmutter of Sparta sported a button on her hat declaring “NJ 11th For Change” — the name of a grassroots, nonpartisan coalition whose stated mission is to advocate for citizens of the district. She said she calls Frelinghuysen’s office often to tell him her views and urge him to support certain causes. “I call so often, they know me,” she said.
Weitzman of Bnai Keshet, using the themes of darkness and light, offered a final thought on the message of Passover and Havdalah, as they both relate to immigration and other social justice issues. Focusing on darkness, the ninth of the 10 plagues enumerated at the seder, she said, “The story goes that darkness was in all the houses of the Egyptians, but the houses of the Jews were lit up. The darkness in the houses of the Egyptians was so dark the people couldn’t move. The darkness was oppressive.”
She compared that literal darkness to the absence of light in the lives of refugees. “We are talking about people whose lives are in a darkness that is oppressive, that they can’t move through. We have a choice about whether or not to bring light,” Weitzman said. “As people of faith…it is actually our job to bring light to this world, to stand in front of our representative’s office saying, ‘This is a central value we hold, and help us.’”
Acknowledging that not everyone may hold the same political views, Tepperman said, “I think in the Jewish community we are good about talking about hard issues. And there’s plenty of room for people to disagree. But it’s also true our community and culture and fundamental texts are really explicit about welcoming the stranger.
“So exactly how do we do that? We can have a conversation,” he said. “Part of why we came here tonight is that we want to have that hard conversation with Rep. Frelinghuysen. I trust we can be in some level of disagreement and still find a way to take action based on principles we share.”