For Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, “The High Holidays in the end are all about what our repentance and forgiveness will yield in the world. There’s always a tie between the contemplation and introspection we do and the social justice that we do.”
That’s why her congregation’s Selichot services, organized and conducted jointly with Rabbi Loren Monosov’s Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, will focus on helping immigrants from Central America who are detained in New Jersey.
“It’s been a hard year in our country,” Rabbi Monosov said. “While we’re doing soul searching in the month of Elul, it’s important to to open up our eyes to see our place in the world and how we can make it better.”
The congregations will hear from Victor Salama, who leads First Friends of New Jersey and New York, an organization that grew more than 20 years ago out of efforts by Jesuit Refugee Services to support asylum seekers held in the Elizabeth Detention Center.
“The goal of Selichot is not to feel bad about ourselves,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “The goal of Selichot is to sincerely ask for forgiveness and reflect on what and how we could do better.” And it’s also about how we make a difference in the world. “We wanted to get some wisdom and information from people working in the field about what we can do to help refugees and how we can solve some of their immediate problems, even if we can’t do everything we would wish for them.”
After Selichot services, people will have a chance to create “Stamp Out Despair” packets for First Friends. Twice every year, the group distributes the packets of stamps, envelopes, and writing paper to all the immigrants detained in North Jersey.
And before the services begin, Mr. Salama will speak about what’s happening locally in migrant detention. “There are four jails in northern New Jersey that house approximately 2,200 immigrants,” he said. Approximately 650 are in the Bergen County jail in Hackensack; the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — aka ICE — pays the bill for that detention.
“I call it New Jersey’s hidden shame,” Mr. Salama said.
“I will speak on the effect detention has on these immigrants, and the moral implications of our counties receiving money from ICE to house them in a jail for what are considered administrative violations.”
He said that New Jersey has seen an upsurge in ICE jailings as the government has moved detainees from facilities near the southern border that have come under fire for their overcrowding and bad conditions.
“Conditions here are better,” he said. “What people are seeing in the Texas facilities are nowhere near what they are in New Jersey. As advocates we press all four jails to maintain good condition, but they aren’t even close to how bad things are in Texas.”
Nonetheless, he urged people to “reach out to your local politicians, county officials, to let them know people aren’t in favor of immigrant detentions. Our counties shouldn’t be receiving funds for jailing them.”
And continuing with the organization’s roots, he’s always looking for volunteers to visit immigrants in detention. “Last year we had 295 volunteers,” he said. There’s a 90-minute training in how to visit detainees; once they get to the jail, the visitor sits on one side of a glass window and the detainee remains on the other side. They talk by phone.
“We can help you find someone to visit,” Mr. Salama said. “We’ll have an experienced staff person or volunteer accompany you. Then you’ll go as many times as you want — once a week, once a month, whatever you’re able to do. You can become a pen pal with that person. It’s a pretty easy way to engage.”
He’s particularly looking for Spanish speakers. But even if your only Spanish is from high school, “people on the other side of the glass are very grateful for the time. You’ve been arrested near the border, you end up in New Jersey, now all of a sudden you have a friendly face across the glass. Whatever rudimentary English you have, you test it out. It’s a big deal for someone in a routine 24×7. It gives a little hope. It offers some compassion.”
Why should Americans care about would-be immigrants?
“Let’s think about it logically,” Mr. Salama said. “We have about 100 million baby boomers coming into Social Security and Medicare. We have a natural growth rate of, let’s say, one percent. That’s not going to help us cover all these large entitlement programs people have paid into. We need people who work and pay taxes. These are people who want to be in this country, law-abiding, hard-working people.
“From a moral perspective, from a Jewish perspective, welcoming a stranger is the right thing to do,” he said. “Many are fleeing violence. We need to step up as a country.”
Rabbi Orenstein said that in keeping with the cooperation among area clergy over refugee issues, Christian and Muslim colleagues and their congregants were invited to the Selichot evening. Half a dozen churches are participating.
“We did it very mindfully,” she said. “Selichot is clearly a very precious Jewish tradition. It’s not an ecumenical or interfaith moment.” Her congregation already has invited interfaith groups to join it for Shabbat services. “I broached it a little bit gingerly with my Christian and Muslim clergy colleagues. Is this going to be comfortable for you? I made a point of describing it. The theme is repentance and forgiveness. It seems any thoughtful religious person can plug into that theme very easily and find a lot of richness there.”
As it has for years, Selichot at Beth Israel starts at 8 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m., forsaking the tradition of midnight services to attract families with children.
“We’re starting with Havdalah and some shofar blasts and a Hatzi Kaddish that will establish the melody of the High Holidays and serve a demarcation between the service and the talk,” she said. Then Mr. Salama will speak. “Following his talk, we’ll blow the shofar and do the traditional prayers like Shma Koleinu, readings in English, and the Ashamnu. There will be some choir pieces from the Temple Emanuel choir. Toward the end of the service we will bring Victor back to answer some questions.”
And then, following services, food and shmoozing in the social hall will be supplemented by putting together the packets with stamps and envelopes for the detainees.
“It’s open to anyone who wants to join us,” Rabbi Orenstein said.
What: Selichot service, including talk by Victor Salama on “New Jersey’s Hidden Shame — Immigrant Detention in Our State.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday night, September 21
Where: Congregation B’nai Israel, 53 Palisade Avenue, Emerson