Last Friday, a group of about a dozen rabbis met outside the Bergen County jail in Hackensack to demonstrate their solidarity with the hunger strikes that some of the prisoners were undertaking, and to raise public awareness of them.
The ten or so prisoners who are on hunger strike had been taken into custody by ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that has been arresting immigrants who cannot prove that they have the documentation that would allow them to work in this country legally. They are being housed in the Bergen jail because ICE pays the county to keep them there; since covid hit, they’re been doubly imprisoned. Visitors cannot come to see them, and they’re at increased risk of being affected by covid, which often runs virtually unchecked through jails and detention centers.
The dozen rabbis who met to talk about the questions raised by how the prisoners are treated, to chant tehillim — psalms — and to model advocacy were a pluralistic group; men and women; Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform; from Bergen and Essex Counties and from New York City. They were organized by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck, the deputy director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and by Rabbi Avram Mlotek of Manhattan, the founder and director of Base Hillel.
“The ICE detainees in these facilities in New Jersey are our neighbors,” Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange said. “They’re our friends, members of our communities, who have been living here for many years, raising families, working here, contributing to society. Because of a piece of paper, or the lack thereof, they were rounded up and jailed. They weren’t tried for anything, much less convicted.”
They are on hunger strike now because “of terrible conditions,” he said. “Rats in their cells. Many of them were transferred there from other facilities because of covid; to keep them safe, they’re kept in their cells almost all day long.
“The way the Justice Department is dealing with this issue is quite problematic, especially during the transition.”
Many more undocumented people have been arrested during the last four years than had been before this administration took office. “That’s had a ripple effect on immigration courts,” Rabbi Olitzky said. Everything took longer. “And during this pandemic, trials are not held at the same rate, and so a number of detainees are just in a holding pattern.
“Many of them from the community have families here; their family members used to visit on weekends. That is now limited because of the pandemic, so the detainees are particularly alone now.
“During the pandemic, there was a decision to release several thousand inmates in prison for low-level offenses to avoid the spread of the virus. So now we are renting it jails out to the federal government, which is filling the beds for more than $100 a day. The beds are filled with ICE detainees.
“They should not be in the jails. They should not be treated as criminals because they lack a piece of paper.”
There is so much going on now, so much of it so awful, that it is hard to keep any one issue in mind, Rabbi Olitzky said. Still, there are some recent stories that made it mandatory for him to show up at the jail.
“The atrocities,” he said. “The atrocious way that the administration has treated immigration over the last four years. Family separation. Children in cages. The way they are treated at the tent cities at the border.” (Rabbi Olitzky went to the border last year and saw some of those tent cities, full of asylum seekers desperate for a better life but trapped south of the border, unable to apply for asylum.)
“A lot of these atrocities went to the backs of our minds, understandably, when the pandemic began,” he said. “But part of our responsibility as Jews is to look at the most vulnerable among us. If we are struggling during this pandemic, imagine what it would be like to be locked up, with anyone who would visit unable to do so. They have no say.
“When we — groups of clergy — come in, they try to provide us with a dog and pony show, but the prisoners are treated like criminals.
“If our tradition tells us that we have an obligation to love the migrants, these words are meaningless if we don’t fight for them, if we don’t understand that throughout history, those journeys are our journey.
“This is not something we can ignore or forget.”
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg, who leads the Glen Rock Jewish Center, was at the protest. “I feel strongly that just because those people are in prison, that doesn’t mean that they do not deserve safe conditions during the pandemic.” And it is important to remember that they are not criminals. “They’re trying to make a living,” she said. “They are trying to seek asylum, to move for a better life for themselves and their families.
“Through no fault of their own, they were born in the wrong zip code,” Rabbi Schlosberg said. “It’s an immigration question, a health issue, and a safety issue. We do not comprehend all the behind the scenes stuff that goes on in America, with so many people being treated in unjust ways.
“And this was happening only 15 miles from my house.”
There were a few scheduled speakers on Friday morning, Rabbi Schlosberg said, and everyone else was invited to talk as well.
There was something profound about the timing of the demonstration, she said. It was on a Friday morning; at this time of year, when the sun barely deigns to show itself, Shabbat begins so early that there’s barely time both to prepare for it and to breathe. So, “the fact that we were doing this just before Shabbat was profound,” Rabbi Schlosberg said. “We’re a bunch of rabbis. For us to get together on a Friday morning, when we should be preparing for Shabbat, both for our communities and for our families, it was a very strong statement. It sends a very strong message about advocating for this.
“Jesse” — that’s Rabbi Olitzky — “said that Shabbat is a slice of the world to come. We as rabbis want to advocate for a slightly more perfect world.”
She was not a scheduled speaker, Rabbi Schlosberg said, but she “talked a little about Thanksgiving, about how we often connect and appreciate people and things and experiences for Thanksgiving. We talk about bounties on Thanksgiving.
“We talked about the people just behind those walls where we were standing, and we couldn’t talk about bounties. Our way of connecting with those people is not about the bounties that we have but the bounties that they do not have.
“On Thanksgiving, we usually focus so much on food. I am telling my community that they should use the money that they’d normally use for hosting a lot of guests toward people who are hungry.”
Let all who are hungry come and eat, the Pesach haggadah tells us. That’s not only true for the eight days of Pesach. It’s true all year round.