When 1,500 people marched through San Diego last week to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck was among them.
Rabbi Kahn-Troster is the deputy director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She led a group of two dozen rabbis and cantors from across the country that joined the march.
The next day, she took her delegation to Tijuana, Mexico, touring migrant centers with the help of HIAS, the immigration agency formerly known as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.
The march in San Diego was organized by Mijente, a Latino organization whose name means “my people.” “We were there for support,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “It was unusual for rabbis and cantors who are used to being in front and giving the speeches.”
Truah gathered with other Jewish groups — including Bend the Arc, Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, and If Not Now — before the march for Shacharit services. All told, the Jewish delegation was more than 100 people. It was the largest religious group at the march.
Speeches before the march began focused on the effect of immigration policies on families. During the march, some people blocked the entrance to the courtroom where immigration trials take place.
Ten protesters were arrested for hanging a banner on a hotel across the street from the courtroom declaring “FREE OUR FAMILIES NOW!” “It was amazing to look up and see it,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. Those protestors face felony charges for conspiracy and misdemeanor charges for trespassing and obstruction of justice.
That protest was last Monday, July 2. The next day began with presentations from the Jewish Family Service of San Diego and from HIAS, whose speakers “warned us that the administration is systematically dismantling our asylum system, making it difficult for people fleeing violence to reach our country,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said.
Then the group crossed the border to Tijuana, where they visited two shelters housing people on their way to apply for asylum in the United States, as well as people who had been deported from the United States after their asylum claims were rejected.
“It was heartbreaking to be there,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “One man — you could see the marks on his wrists from the handcuffs when he had been in custody — told us all his family is in the U.S. We heard stories about what the families back in the U.S. are going through.
“One thing I didn’t realize was that if you have children in the United States, not only can’t you be with them in the U.S., you can’t automatically bring them to Mexico,” she said. “You have to prove you can support them. The process may take a year or more.
“It’s heartbreaking. They told stories of women who could talk to their children only by phone or Skype. The children ask them where they were.
“As a human being, as a parent, I spent a lot of time thinking about the choices my family made to get to Canada,” where Rabbi Kahn-Troster grew up, she said. “What would it mean to flee everything you know in search of a better life and not being able to get there?”
“It’s really important that T’ruah combined the day of witness with HIAS with the day of justice in the streets,” she continued. “We weren’t there just to see what was going on. HIAS was teaching us how to advocate, how we can continue to support asylum seekers and refugees. And we were in the streets with communities who are being targeted now and demanding justice.”
Two years ago, immigration was a peripheral issue for T’ruah. “We used to work on it primarily because it is related to forced labor and workers’ rights, since employers use people’s status as a way to threaten them to deport if they complain about working conditions,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “Since the election we heard from many communities around the country who wanted to be involved in the sanctuary movement.
“The new sanctuary movement started under President Obama, when we saw deportations increase, and has taken off since the election.
Seventy synagogues have signed up to be part of T’ruah’s Jewish sanctuary movement, offering support to immigrants facing deportation.
“Sanctuary is not just physically housing someone in your church and synagogue,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “I know of a few synagogues that are ready to house, but I don’t know of any one actually housing an immigrant. There are lots of synagogues that are part of networks where they are providing support for churches that are housing people.
“I think the Jewish community is really outraged at how our entire immigration system is being dismantled. We’re mobilizing communities and rabbis to do actions around Tisha B’Av at detention facilities.”
Among the congregations with such plans is Congregation Bnai Keshet in Montclair, which will conduct Tisha B’Av Ma’ariv service at the Rodino Federal Building in Newark. According to its website, the shul’s members “stand in solidarity with immigrants experiencing the contemporary tragedy of unjust law and wanton destruction as we remember the devastation of Jewish communities past.”
For Rabbi Kahn-Troster, “the fact that Jewish communities have been showing up at protests has been really important. It shows we’re willing to make our voices heard.”
How can a synagogue get involved in political issues without splintering along political lines? “Every synagogue knows what is the consensus in their community,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “That’s why family separation is galvanizing so many people. It made a broader swath of the American center aware of what can happen to families in the immigration system.
“Synagogues need to talk about the values we have as a society, and how synagogues can come out in support of those values. ‘Keep families together!’ was the motto of a protest two weeks ago. That’s a positive vision, that’s a message synagogues can get behind given the centrality of the family — broadly defined — in Judaism. We are morally accountable as a society that is putting children in cages and families in jail, asking children one year old to represent themselves in court.
“Standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable populations in our society is a clear part of the Jewish tradition,” she said. “Given the moral crisis we find ourselves in as a nation, if synagogues are not places where we can talk about these issues, if they are places where it would be too politically difficult to say children and parents belong together, we should think carefully about what are the values of our synagogue.”