With a $2,500 grant, the venerable Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has validated the fledgling Rockland Jews for Immigrant Justice. The money will go to buying food and distributing it to Rockland’s immigrant community.
RJIJ is a bit more than a year old, but “we’re just getting into our groove now,” Jeff Shalom said. Mr. Shalom, of Upper Nyack, is the social action chair of Beth Am Temple in Pearl River. RJIJ also includes members from Temple Beth Sholom in New City and Reform Temple of Rockland in Nyack, as well as Congregation Sons of Israel, also in Nyack.
Mr. Shalom said that the group was Carolyn Fish’s idea. Ms. Fish, a founder and long time leader of the Center for Safety and Change, Rockland’s agency for victims of domestic violence, died last November at 74.
“Carolyn had been at a rally for immigrants,” Mr. Shalom said. “She decided there wasn’t enough Jewish support for the immigrant community.”
Ms. Fish was a member of Beth Am, so she went to the shul’s social action committee and started getting the group together. She also led the group to partner with the immigrant-led organization Proyecto Faro. “She took me to meet Rosario Ureña, Faro’s founding organizer,” Mr. Shalom said.
Mr. Shalom was immediately receptive to Ms. Fish’s suggestion that the social action committee start working for immigrants.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to get involved in with my family. I wanted my kids to see how important it is to help people who are vulnerable,” he said. “When Carolyn came up with the idea, it resonated.”
In January, he traveled to Arizona with a group of people from Faro to learn about a legal clinic in Tucson. “It was deeply inspiring,” he said. Mr. Shalom, who is a lawyer, has been participating in a monthly legal clinic on Zoom for immigrants.
The Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus Initiative grant from the Religious Action Center was a group project. “Everybody played a part in it,” Mr. Shalom said. “The beautiful thing is to have three Reform synagogues that are working together on the same projects. RJIJ is really there to support Faro’s leadership and empower immigrants to stand up for themselves. We help them build relationships in our community, and then carry forward the work.”
One focus is helping to feed poor immigrants.
“We received a produce grant from the Clarkstown supervisor’s office,” Mr. Shalom said. “We received a donation from Goya. The grant we received from the Union for Reform Judaism goes directly to food purchases. As a result of that grant we’re able to apply for other grants.
“My congregation did a food drive when people were picking up their prayer books for virtual synagogue services. I know that’s going on in all the other synagogues as well. People are actively involved. They know who Faro is and are happy to support it.”
Ms. Ureña is originally from the Dominican Republic. She has been in the United States for 20 years and is now a citizen, but “I know what it’s like to be undocumented,” she said, speaking through a translator. (The translator was Mr. Shalom’s wife, Anna Shalom, whose mother is from Spain and who grew up speaking Spanish.)
Ms. Ureña lives in Spring Valley, one of the center’s of Rockland’s immigrant community, but before that she lived in Stony Point. It was there that she met the people at the Stony Point Center, a Presbyterian center dedicated to “to radical hospitality and radical humility,” who launched Proyecto Faro, which means Project Lighthouse. Ms. Ureña then was living in a mobile home community of about 140 families that was flooded by Superstorm Sandy. “The mobile homes were all destroyed,” she said.
At that point, the directors of the Stony Point Center “opened the center to all of these families,” Ms. Ureña said. “They provided food and lodging and even clothes to help us in this terrible moment.”
Ms. Ureña took a lead role in fighting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get proper relief. Faro ended up winning some money for families to repair their mobile homes, only to discover that their lots were now considered to be in a flood zone, so they couldn’t move back.
“That’s when we began a five-year battle with the government to be given a place to be relocated,” Ms. Ureña said. “In the end, we didn’t win everything we asked for — but we won about 80 percent.”
In the process, she had become the voice of a lot of families of undocumented immigrants, so when the directors of the Stony Point Center wanted to help the immigrant community, she was a logical leader.
“At the beginning the biggest challenge was gaining the trust of the immigrant community,” she said. “Now the challenge is to meet their needs, the financial situation.
“It’s important for people to understand that the undocumented immigrants are here, but they’re not getting support from the government. There are a lot of families that are living and working and contributing and they are here — but they don’t have the same rights and resources available to them.
“For example, the East Ramapo school district has a very large number of undocumented families. At this moment in time, they do not have the laptops and tablets that are necessary for the students to continue their schooling in this situation. Another important current pandemic example: At the beginning, when there were government relief checks, the undocumented did not receive any support from the government, even if they are working and paying taxes and contributing to the economy.”
During the four years of the Trump administration, Ms. Ureña said, “there has been a lot more fear to just do day-to-day activities, like going to the supermarket or to the mall, because there was a fear they would be arrested. That wasn’t happening before. If undocumented immigrants were going to the court to pay a parking ticket, they would find ICE at the parking lots ready to arrest them.
“On the one hand, there’s all this hostility the immigrants have faced. On the other hand, I have met so many amazing people who are volunteering to help, who may or may not be from an immigrant community. People who are pooling their resources and connections to make a difference.”