Last month, Temple Emeth’s board voted to join the HIAS Welcoming Congregations program.
The program, although it is largely symbolic, indicates each member’s advocacy for immigration and its desire to help immigrants gain entry into the country and to establish lives here. The Reform congregation in Teaneck joined more than 350 other congregations from the liberal denominations, including another five in North Jersey, in making the pledge.
The other local congregations are Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, the United Synagogue of Hoboken, Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, and Shomrei Torah in Wayne.
But Temple Emeth’s decision to align itself with HIAS, the one-time Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, goes back at least to last year, when congregant Peter Adler made the High Holiday appeal on behalf of the organization.
And it may well go back to 1940, when HIAS would regularly visit the Washington Heights apartment where Mr. Adler’s widowed mother was raising Peter and his brother. The family had fled Germany to America just weeks before the war began and depended on HIAS to make ends meet. Mrs. Adler worked, cleaning apartments and waiting on tables, but she earned less than $12 a week.
Mr. Adler told a story: “I still remember the day that the HIAS lady was due to show up when my mother asked me to hide the new lamp in the back of our coat closet so that the HIAS lady wouldn’t think that we were unacceptably affluent. She didn’t want to lose the small financial support that thankfully HIAS was supplying.
“Hard to believe today, isn’t it? But I’m sure that there are many new immigrants who are having similar experiences all over the world.”
Mr. Adler then praised HIAS for its work with Syrian refugees in Greece, Egypt, and the United States, and asked congregants to donate to it.
This year, Temple Emeth directed its High Holiday appeal to fight for religious pluralism in Israel. Still, the subject of Rabbi Steven Sirbu’s Rosh Hashanah sermon was welcoming refugees.
Rabbi Sirbu said he began “with different texts about the ways that we as Jews welcome the stranger. We take the immigrant story so personally, whether it is Maimonides offering the quote, ‘We should all look at ourselves as if we went free from Egypt,’ or telling the stories of our ancestors only three or four generations ago.”
Jewish texts, Rabbi Sirbu said, “prohibit the harassment of someone in a new place.”
He called on his congregation to go to HIAS’s website and send emails to Congress urging that President Trump, who launched his campaign by libeling immigrants, to allow 75,000 refugees into the United States in the new fiscal year.
Whether or not congressional representatives noted the emails they received, and whether or not the representatives reached out to the White House, President Trump has proposed capping refugee resettlement at 45,000. That is the lowest number set by a president since the Refugee Act became law in 1980.
The 45,000 refugees the administration is willing to accept contrasts with the 85,000 who were resettled in the United States two years ago. In the last fiscal year, the Obama administration set the ceiling at 110,000, in light of the increased number of refugees, but the Trump administration substantially reduced that number through two executive orders.
HIAS has condemned this change. The administration, HIAS’s president, Mark Hetfield, said, is “betraying the commitments we made after World War II — followed by decades of bipartisan support — to ensure that the world never again turns its back on innocent people seeking safety.”
A year and a half ago, Mr. Hetfield spoke about the Syrian refugees at Temple Emeth. Then, he was advocating for refugees. Now, he and his organization must also advocate against an administration that wants to limit refugees and demonize immigrants.
But being at odds with the White House has only increased attraction that Temple Emeth members feel toward HIAS.
After the election, Dan and Laura Kirsch, each a former president of the congregation, wanted to do something. They met with Rabbi Sirbu as they searched for appropriate action.
“Funny you should ask,” he told them. “I have a request here from HIAS to support their rally.”
And so the Kirschs organized a bus from Teaneck to the rally, held in lower Manhattan, in sight of the Statue of Liberty. Nearly 50 people went, most from Temple Emeth; some came from nearby Congregation Beth Sholom.
“That showed the interest was there,” Mr. Kirsch said.
“It was really important that we step up,” Mrs. Kirsch said.
“When Trump announced his travel ban, all I could see in my head was the picture of the Saint Louis coming into the harbor with the children lining the rail — and being turned away,” she said.
“That can’t happen here again. That’s not who we are.”
Mr. Kirsch said his perspective on immigration also has been shaped by the years he was on the Hackensack Board of Education.
“I saw firsthand the problems of children who came here at a young age,” he said. Those are the young people known as the Dreamers. “We educated them. They’re great kids. They’re really Americans because they know no other country. To see them ending up with dead ends after graduation because they couldn’t get jobs and couldn’t afford to go to college — it’s an outrage. They were some of our best and nicest kids, forced into the shadows through no fault of their own.”
The Trump administration’s promise to arrest illegal immigrants is having an impact on Hackensack, he said. “Business is off dramatically. People are afraid to come out. The police report that they are not getting reports of crimes because they are afraid.”
The Kirschs have been members of Temple Emeth for a long time. They joined in 1970. “Temple Emeth historically always had a very strong social action and civil rights presence going back to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era,” Mr. Kirsch said.
“If you look at what’s going on in the world today, the young people, in their twenties and thirties and forties — we’re in our seventies — are getting more and more active politically for issues and causes, and immigration is one of them. Temple Emeth is ready to step up and take its place as one of the institutions supporting human rights.”
What does this mean going forward?
Temple Emeth’s social action committee met Sunday morning and began putting together a program that will look at the issues of refugees and Dreamers. The program likely will feature attorneys from the synagogue who will discuss the legal issues. It will lead to a discussion of how people can take action in their communities. Mr. Kirsch noted an effort in Hackensack to declare the city a welcoming community to immigrants.