NJ synagogues stand ‘ready to help’ immigrants

NJ synagogues stand ‘ready to help’ immigrants

Bnai Keshet renews offer of sanctuary in wake of threatened raids

Bnai Keshet renovated a third-floor apartment for families seeking sanctuary from federal authorities. Photo courtesy Bnai Keshet
Bnai Keshet renovated a third-floor apartment for families seeking sanctuary from federal authorities. Photo courtesy Bnai Keshet

In a June 17 tweet President Donald Trump pledged “ICE will begin the process of removing millions of illegal aliens that have found their way into the United States.”

Even though the mentioned raids by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were delayed two weeks and there was no evidence of any wide-scale removal project last weekend, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, reiterated his congregation’s commitment to protecting those living in fear of deportation.

“We’re ready to help immigrants any way we can,” said Tepperman, a leading immigrant-rights advocate whose congregation is already providing sanctuary to a Honduran family seeking asylum. The family lives on the synagogue grounds in a renovated third-floor apartment that includes several rooms, a private bathroom, and access to a kitchen.      

“We have room for many more if they need a safe place, if they are facing deportation,” said Tepperman. “We’re ready, but we’ve seen this pattern with this president before, and wonder what we’re ready for.”

The “millions” Trump originally tweeted about reportedly turned out to be 2,000, mostly criminals, who had been ordered removed from the country by the courts but the original tweet aroused fear in area immigrant communities, adding urgency to Tepperman’s and Bnai Keshet’s work.

“Our immigration system, confirmed by what is going on at the Mexican border, is broken; we certainly need to fix it,” said Tepperman. He bases his motivation to come to the aid of immigrants on Jewish sacred texts and experience. “We were once strangers in lands ourselves,” he said, “and we need to help all we can. Our synagogue decided several years ago to assist such people in need.”

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair said, “We’re ready to help immigrants any way we can.”

Bnai Keshet formed and works with the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance (MSA), “an interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and individuals offering sanctuary to individuals resisting detention and deportation in order to stay together with their families and communities,” according to its mission statement. Other alliance members are the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair, the First Congregational Church of Montclair, and Faith in NJ — a multi-faith, multi-racial network that aims to ensure social justice for all.

“With our partners, we have pledged to protect the stranger,” said Tepperman. “Our country prospered because generations past decided to come here. We believe immigrants today will add skills to our nation and deserve a chance.”

The MSA also offers immigrants legal advice and accompanies those at risk of deportation to ICE check-ins and court appearances.

Tepperman is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a national network of religious leaders based in New York. It in turn created Mikdash: The Jewish Sanctuary Movement, whose membership includes 70 synagogues, including Bnai Keshet, that are ready to offer sanctuary to immigrants. T’ruah recently presented Tepperman with its 2019 Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award.

The group is planning to hold solidarity vigils for immigrants at ICE offices around the country on Tisha b’Av (Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 10-11) — a day of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and other historic catastrophes that befell the Jewish people.

T’ruah protested the president’s policies in a released statement, which reads in part:

“The Trump administration is acting like the leaders of the biblical Sodom, whose primary sin, according to rabbinic literature, was their abuse of foreigners and their xenophobia. The people of Sodom acted out of fear, hatred, and intolerance.

“It is shameful that our country is following their example. With these raids, our country is acting as another Sodom: A place where injustice masquerades as rule of law.

“We call on our leaders … to be guided by justice and mercy and to take a compassionate and moral approach to the immigrants who now call our country home.”

T’ruah, which has been involved in several marches and protests in its support of immigrants, some at ICE’s Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility, has also published “Mikdash: A Jewish Guide to the New Sanctuary Movement,” explaining several actions other than actual physical sanctuary that help further the cause, including participation in marches and other protest efforts.

One way a synagogue or group can be involved without offering physical sanctuary can be seen at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.

“Our synagogue itself does not get involved in politics, but groups within it, such as our Tikkun Olam group, and I do,” said Rabbi Philip Bazeley, religious leader of the Reform congregation. “We do not offer sanctuary, but our group has always been outspoken in favor of immigrants. Luckily we did not see any [ICE] raids in our area last weekend.”

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet receives T’ruah’s Human Rights Hero Award from Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, a board member of the organization, in May. Photo by Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Bazeley agrees with Tepperman that the United States needs to improve its immigration system and that politics are the crux of Trump’s tweeting and threatening of immigrants.

“It’s Trump’s way of energizing his base,’’ said Bazeley. “It pushes us to help immigrants who are threatened even more.”

Bazeley works with the Reformed Church of Highland Park, which offers sanctuary to immigrants. Anshe Emeth, along with The Highland Park Minyan and other houses of worship, is a member of the church’s Interfaith-RISE: Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment.

“We have a whole system of assistance with RISE,” said Bazeley. “We educate immigrants not to answer ICE’s knocks on doors” — if there is no search warrant — “and if there are check-ins or court appearances, we make sure immigrants are accompanied and have the right legal assistance. We also supply lawyers who can get them out of detention, if that’s the case.”

Anshe Emeth and RISE are also in contact with Faith in NJ and with D.I.R.E.: The Deportation and Immigration Response Equipo, which acts when needed to stop detention, deportation, and the separation of families.

Bazeley said he believes all immigrants deserve the same chance many of our own grandparents received when they were newcomers to this country. “The best solution is a path for these people to become citizens and contribute,” he said.


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