For 40 rabbis and cantors, the journey across the border into Mexico last week was a journey toward empathy. And, for the two Jewish groups that sponsored the trip, one hopefully toward action.
Most of the clergy had traveled to California (some are based there) to join in an action July 2 with the immigrant organization Mijente. The next day they crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana, Mexico, to visit shelters for migrants seeking asylum in the United States and to understand the experience of such a crossing for themselves.
The group was organized through a partnership between T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and HIAS, an immigrant advocacy and resettlement organization. Both organizations have been at the forefront of Jewish communal opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. In crossing the border, the organizations hoped to further educate their members about the realities on the ground.
Members of T’ruah and HIAS were part of a Jewish bloc at the Mijente protests in San Diego. The actions, joined by over 1,000 people, were in opposition to Operation Streamline (the Trump administration policy to criminally prosecute those who cross the border without authorization), and against family separation. Mijente’s platform calls for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
According to Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, T’ruah’s deputy director, “What we’re hoping from the rabbis and cantors is that they will make their shuls sanctuary synagogues; sanctuary is the act of housing someone who is an undocumented immigrant threatened with deportation, but also really a commitment to immigrant defense.” T’ruah coordinates a 70-congregration sanctuary network called Mikdash.
For Kahn-Troster, though she was educated about the situation, traveling to the border made the issue deeply personal. Witnessing “the tears of migrant mothers,” and citing her own two children, she reflected, “I can’t even begin to imagine what the women who come to the border are going through. What would it mean for me if I was separated from my children?”
Liz Sweet, HIAS’ general counsel and chief human resources officer, also traveled across the border. Sweet, who has spent significant time working at the U.S.-Mexico border, said that HIAS aims for the Jewish community to engage in self-education and advocacy, and “to realize that it’s happening on the border but also in so many of our communities, where so many of these asylum-seekers are ultimately going to be seeking protection.”
Addressing the responsibility of Jewish institutions, Kahn-Troster said, “We use the immigrant narrative so much to talk about who we are as an American-Jewish community. It’s now time for all of our institutions, whether it’s the big ones or the small ones, to raise our voices and say, ‘This is not OK.’”