Immigration is a vast topic, and there are many ways to approach it.
If you look at it statistically, you see huge numbers, and those numbers are impersonal. According to the United Nations, in 2015 there were 47 million immigrants living in the United States. That’s a lot of people. It is, in fact, a staggering number of people.
And each one of those people has a story.
That’s because immigration also is an entirely personal thing, a cataclysmic event at the core of each immigrant’s life. Everyone came from somewhere, left there for some reason, and left something behind — maybe something as physical as a home and the land that surrounds it, or maybe something as intangible as unhappiness or as ultimately malleable as memory.
That understanding of immigration — as intensely personal narrative threads making up a vast industrial carpet — is what brought reporter Matt Katz to Elizabeth last year.
Mr. Katz is a reporter for the New York public radio station WNYC. Until recently, he covered New Jersey’s former governor, Chris Christie; he wrote a book on Mr. Christie, who is outsized in every way, including in personality. “But I think that it’s good in general for reporters to change beats every few years,” Mr. Katz said. “And Christie was leaving office.
“And also he had stopped talking to me. That didn’t make covering him impossible, but it did make it a little more difficult, and a little less enjoyable.”
He will be talking about immigration at the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on Thursday. (See box.)
Mr. Katz is Jewish. His interest in immigration was sparked “toward the end of my time covering Christie, when I read a short story in the Newark Star-Ledger about a synagogue in Montclair that hosted several Syrian Muslim refugee families for dinner on Christmas Eve,” he said. “They served takeout Chinese food.
“I loved the convergence of all those cultures. The idea of Muslims and Jews getting together on Christmas, in such a uniquely American way.”
When he began to write about immigration, Mr. Katz wrote about a Syrian supper club in Maplewood. “I was fascinated by some of the very positive local things that have come out of the very divisive immigration moment now,” he said.
At the JCC, his talk will “focus on immigration policy in New York and New Jersey,” he said. “Most of what I have done is in New Jersey. I hope to explain some of the changes in immigration policy — there have been so many changes that they’re hard to follow. And I’ll tell stories about the people who are affected by it.”
He’s recorded conversations, and he plans to play some of them, “to get a sense of what their experiences have been.
“People have different opinions about immigration policy, but it is clear that we have a very unclear, inconsistent, makeshift approach to how we admit immigrants and how we determine who can stay,” Mr. Katz said. “I’ll talk about some of that using the voices of some of these folks.”
One of the most compelling stories Mr. Katz tells aired on public radio; he will talk about it at the JCC as well. It’s the story of Andre Twendele and Lisette Lukoji, both from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was shot and left for dead, lying on top of executed men who really were dead. She was arrested and imprisoned; her baby daughter was pulled away from her. Lisette has no idea what happened to Lorette; she doesn’t even know if the baby survived the attack.
The couple met in a refugee camp in Malawi, and they married. She’s still there. He’s in Elizabeth. They don’t know if they ever will meet again, but their strong Christian faith has taken them to this point, and although it is highly stressed, even tattered, it is not yet gone.
Mr. Katz has interviewed Mr. Twendele in Elizabeth, and he has gone to Malawi to interview Ms. Lukoji. His radio interviews — which are available in transcription on the internet, at njspotlight.com — are both factual and emotional.
“The common feature of immigration, of migration, is family separation,” Mr. Katz said. “Parents from children, spouses from each other. When you are talking about the refugee crisis, this is what it means in human terms.”
As a reporter, he is able to distance himself somewhat from the stories he hears as he is hearing them, Mr. Katz said. “I get into a certain mode when I am working. You are observing everything — you’re also thinking about whether the microphone is on properly, about who else you could talk to, and what else you should talk about. So I am not experiencing it in the moment as a listener might.” For example, when Ms. Lukoji talked about her daughter being pulled from her arms, he could listen. “And then I feel it later,” he said. “You have to feel it, to understand it, and to understand how that one story fits into a larger narrative.”
Listening to immigrants’ stories and retelling them has gotten Mr. Katz interested in his own story. “I constantly think about what my great grandparents and grandparents experienced when they came to this country, and it makes me want to learn more about it,” he said. “So I started on ancestry.com, and I have found out more about how and when they got here.
“I found my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers,” Mr. Katz continued. “His name was Morris Russakow; he was born in 1872, in what I believe is modern-day Belarus, was beaten and almost killed for being Jewish. He got here in 1904, and was naturalized in 1923, in Connecticut. He was a kosher butcher there.
“And I found another great-grandfather, who lived in Rockland, Maine. The census form had his address, so I google-mapped it, and I found that across the street was an old synagogue, so I googled it. He arrived in 1892; the synagogue opened there just a few years later.
“A small group of Jews arrived there, and clearly the first thing they did was open a synagogue. I think that if I went there, I probably could find his name on a ledger somewhere in the basement.”
The shul, google says, is Adas Yoshuron Synagogue. It’s still open.
As a Jew, Mr. Katz said, and as a reporter who has covered many immigrants’ stories, “I think I kind of viscerally understand the experience of immigration. Even though I was born in this country, and even though as a white man I can pass as a Mayflower American, I don’t feel that way inside.
“The way we take in refugees was created in the wake of the Holocaust,” Mr. Katz said. “It was in response to the often abysmal way the country handled the question of whether to accept Jews fleeing Europe during the war, so it is a constant backdrop to the stories of the refugees.”
And that’s why Mr. Katz tells the immigrants’ stories with such heart.
Who: WNYC reporter Matt Katz
What: Will talk about “How Trump’s Immigration Policies Impact Lives and Change America”
Where: At the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
When: On Thursday, June 7, at 10:30
And also: After a break for lunch, Dr. Seth Gopin will talk about “Frank Lloyd Wright and the West,” as he looks at what the extraordinary American architect did after he moved to Arizona and settled in Taliesin West.
How much: The full day costs JCC members $35; non-members $42.
For more information or to register: Go to jccotp.org/adult-JCC-university or call (201) 408.1454.