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Tisha b’Av protest at detention center
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Tisha b’Av protest at detention center

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet said Jews are obligated “to stand with those who are in danger today because of their status as immigrants.” Photos by Robert Wiener
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet said Jews are obligated “to stand with those who are in danger today because of their status as immigrants.” Photos by Robert Wiener

Mindful of their heritage as the children and grandchildren of immigrants, some 100 observers of Tisha b’Av stood outside the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility on July 31, likening the plight of Jews throughout centuries with the 304 men being held without legal hearings or criminal charges.

It was the start of an observance that program organizer Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, told his audience “marks just about every horrible thing that has ever happened to the Jews, beginning with the destruction of two temples and expulsion to Babylon.

“We are not only here to remember our own experience of estrangement and abuse, but to stand with those who are in danger today because of their status as immigrants,” he said

The protesters stood in front of a forbidding grey warehouse in an industrial zone several miles from Newark Liberty International Airport. Their prayers, songs, and speeches were interrupted every three to five minutes by the booming overflights of jetliners.

But attendees persevered, standing for several hours on a hot night, determined to bear witness to what many of them perceive as an affront, not just to the Jewish past, but to the American future. 

“These people are being excluded from our community and we should show solidarity toward them,” said Rick Abrams, a resident of Montclair and a member of Temple Ner Tamid. “They are being kept in a warehouse. C’mon now. That is not the America that I believe in.”

The program began by lighting candles before an hour-long recitation of biblical passages and hymns in Hebrew and English, mostly from the book of Eicha (Lamentations), the Megillah that is read on Tisha b’Av eve.

One passage spoke of a “princess of a state…All of her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.”

Another said, “My foes have snared me like a bird, without any cause.”  

Still another said, “We have become orphans, fatherless.”

Those ancient words were echoed in modern verse read aloud by the evening’s only non-Jewish speaker, Deacon Michael Martini of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Allendale.

Martini read from a poem called “Home” by Warsan Shire, a British poet born to Somali parents.

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” reads the poem’s opening verse.

“This is an important way that we as Jews can raise awareness of the issues of our time and make a connection of our own history with modern-day reality,” Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston told NJJN before the ceremony. “We must keep using pressure to not allow people just to be thrown into a detention center.”

Aaron Back of Montclair, who was a volunteer at a program sponsored by HIAS and the American Friends Service Committee, paid weekly visits to a man from Mozambique who has been imprisoned at the detention center for two years. Back said those visits “meant a whole lot to him and a whole lot to me.” 

He described the inside of the center as “very, very stark. These are people who are not accused or found guilty of any crime. It is a prison,” a noisy place where the man from Mozambique “lived in boredom in an indeterminacy.”

Emily Kullmann of Rockaway is a Quaker who works with First Friends of New York and New Jersey, an organization dedicated to treating immigrants with dignity. “These detainees are treated horribly,” she said to NJJN. “They don’t get enough to eat and live in horrible conditions without medical care. We have the ability to help people but we just choose not to. We demonize people like Hitler demonized the Jews.”

An official of the detention center who asked not to be identified told NJJN the detainees in Elizabeth “are being treated better than in any other place.” The person declined to discuss whether the detainees receive adequate food and medical treatment. 

The center is owned and operated by the for-profit CoreCivic, the largest private prison corporation in the United States, under contract from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It houses 90,000 offenders and detainees in its more-than 60 facilities.

Asked whether some of those incarcerated may have been presumed by the government to be possible terrorists, Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, said “the reality is that America is a nation mostly of immigrants and most of our families came here by means that were not the most legal. 

“The doors of our nation have been slammed in people’s faces, and when we look back on history we have regretted it.  We are doing the wrong thing again,” she said.

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