Harry Pangemanan has long felt a kinship with the Jewish people. He elaborated on that connection last Passover when he attended an interfaith social action seder at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple (AEMT), a Reform congregation in New Brunswick, noting the similarities between the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt and his own persecution in Indonesia. A Christian, Pangemanan was forced to flee the mostly Muslim country in 1993.
Now a resident of Highland Park with his wife and two American-born daughters, ages 11 and 15, Pangemanan was forced to leave his home once again, after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents attempted to arrest him on Jan. 25. This time, however, he didn’t have to go far, knowing that there were others nearby who could relate to his plight. He escaped to the Reformed Church of Highland Park, which has served as a sanctuary congregation for Indonesians and is partnering with synagogues and houses of worship on initiatives to help Indonesians seeking refuge.
“They came to us for help and we’re giving it because our scripture compels us to care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, the three most vulnerable members of society,” said AEMT assistant rabbi Philip Bazeley. “We should care for the stranger as we care for our own.”
The AEMT board is expected to vote in the coming weeks on whether to join the Sanctuary Network by shielding undocumented immigrants in the synagogue.
Congregants from the church, AEMT, and the multidenominational Highland Park Minyan, which meets at the church on Saturday mornings and holidays, are among the volunteers who have stood as sentries watching over the Indonesians living in the church, and some have rallied outside the Elizabeth Detention Center, where undocumented immigrants, including some Indonesians, are being held. ICE generally refrains from entering religious institutions and seizing undocumented immigrants, but U.S. law does not actually prevent them from doing so. If ICE decides to disregard this longstanding practice, Bazeley said sentries have been instructed to act as witnesses and document what takes place, but not to interfere.
Andres Yoav Mejer, an Orthodox Jew and immigration lawyer who has offices in Lakewood, Elizabeth, and Long Branch, told NJJN the last several months have seen a sharp increase in roundups of undocumented immigrants. Until recently, he said, undocumented immigrants who had been in the country 15 or more years, had not committed a crime, and had children, were largely ignored by ICE.
“Now ICE picks them up and deports them,” said Mejer, who has written several books on immigration and deals mostly with the Hispanic population because of his fluency in Spanish. Mejer immigrated to the U.S. from Santiago, Chile, with his family when he was a child. “There has been a fundamental change in the mindset that is different from any administration in my lifetime that immigrants should be hunted down and deported.”
A member of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Long Branch, Mejer said that, as a Jew, he is particularly troubled by the current situation.
“We were slaves; we were mistreated,” he said. “No one deserves to be separated from their family. It’s against the Bible. It’s unAmerican. It’s one of the commandments of Hillel to treat others like you’d want to be treated.”
Bazeley, a Highland Park resident, agreed.
“We know as Jews what it’s like to be targeted as a subset of individuals, to feel less than others. Here is a man who arrived with nothing and worked diligently to make New Jersey a better place. How dare we treat him like a piece of garbage.”
Members of the various congregations have aided the Indonesians by visiting them and donating money and food. They’re also protective of their guests: On a Jan. 31 visit to the church, this reporter was asked by several volunteers (they were not from AEMT or the Highland Park Minyan) to provide press credentials before being allowed to speak to Pangemanan, one of three men and their families currently being housed there. Pangemanan declined to have his photo taken.
Like the other Indonesians taking sanctuary at the church who are all ethnic Chinese, Pangemanan had come to the U.S. on a tourist visa. He worked in construction and was recently honored for helping to rebuild homes destroyed by Superstorm Sandy down the Jersey Shore. Only months ago, Pangemanan volunteered in Houston to help those affected by Tropical Storm Harvey.
He talked about his appreciation for the Jewish community and smiled as he reeled off names of Jews who visit regularly.
“They make my spirits higher,” said Pangemanan, who sleeps in a classroom with his family and showers in the basement.
Judy Richman, a Highland Park resident, chesed chair of the Highland Park Minyan as well as a member of the Conservative Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, said she felt a strong connection to many of the Indonesians who have related stories of being attacked, having their churches ransacked and burned, and living in fear.
“My own grandmother hid in an oven during a pogrom in White Russia to save her life because of government-sponsored hate and my family was welcomed into this country because they suffered religious persecution,” said Richman, who, along with her husband, Steve, were among the minyan members who stood outside the church Sunday, Jan. 28, to protect and support members during worship services. “The Indonesians’ story very much parallels my own family’s story. The Indonesians came to escape persecution as did my family.”
Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler said the borough is a “fair and welcoming” community to immigrants, and she alerted Gov. Phil Murphy and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6), who came to the church the afternoon Pangemanan sought refuge, along with many state, local, and school officials.
A former president of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, she told NJJN she was also motivated by Jewish values of “welcoming the stranger into our homes and communities.”
Rabbi David Vaisberg and Cantor Aviva Marer of Temple Emanu-El in Edison addressed a crowd of several hundred Jan. 28 in Metuchen who marched from the First Presbyterian Church in Metuchen to borough hall. Vaisberg, who helped to coordinate the rally as president of the Metuchen-Edison Area Interfaith Clergy Association, said it was incumbent on the nation to welcome people fleeing persecution.
“From a Jewish perspective, we have been exactly in this situation where we have been the other,” he said. “The Torah tells us 36 times to be kind to strangers because we have been strangers, a word that has been described as foreigners, but can also be used for refugee. It is a moral imperative, a mitzvah to be kind to refugees.”