‘Yes,’ I should have said then
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‘Yes,’ I should have said then

Local rabbi tells his story of immigration and separation

My family and I have lived through the pain of being separated at the border.

Our circumstances were different. Our circumstances were privileged. But for our children, and for the children of others, we cannot be silent regarding the horrific situation we are currently witnessing.

Few people know the depth of our story, so allow me to tell it in detail.

I began my career as a congregational rabbi in 2006, serving Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, for seven years. I married an Australian woman, and our daughters became dual citizens of the United States and the Commonwealth of Australia.

Seeking career advancement, I was appointed as rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in 2013. We were told that it would take approximately five months for my wife to obtain a visa and secure permanent residency. It took 11. I moved to New Jersey to begin the next phase of my career, while Lisa and our daughters, then a preschooler and a toddler, stayed behind in Sydney.

Thankfully, my new congregation was kind and supportive. In October 2013, four months after I left Australia, my synagogue granted (insisted) that I take family leave for two weeks so that I could return to Australia to see my wife and daughters. My wife came to the airport; hugging me, with tears streaming down her face, she said, “You’re really here?” and then asked, “Is it really you?”

Our first stop was the home where our younger daughter was being babysat. She looked at me with her wide eyes, and she burst out crying. It seemed as if she no longer recognized or realized who I was. Without words, on the heels of four months of FaceTime conversations, she could have been wondering why I suddenly had come out of the computer screen. Nearly 20 percent of her life had passed without me. Later that afternoon, I picked our older daughter up from preschool. Her cry of “Daddy!” still rings in my ears.

But my wife still didn’t have a visa then. So I separated from my family again, the anguish so blisteringly real as I struggled uselessly to fight back my tears. I returned to the United States, and waited another seven weeks, when finally, in the middle of December, I was able to bring my family into the United States, to see our new home and meet our new community.

We are the lucky ones. We are the privileged ones. We had fortune on both sides of the earth, roofs above our heads, family, friends, and community who cared for us. But we were separated in the immigration process. We were a family but it was not possible for my wife and me to be together, to parent our children together. The anxiety of separation between an infant or preschool-aged child and their parent is so very real. We see it and we feel it in our home with both of our daughters. While we made the very correct decision of ensuring that our daughters remained with my wife, their mother, in Australia, being separated from one another still has a profound effect on our family’s emotional well being.

What we are seeing at our borders and what we have experienced in the immigration process is cruel. Throughout our lengthy ordeal, I would communicate regularly with associates from the National Visa Center. I would express to them the need for families to be together. All they would say is, “Without the right papers it doesn’t matter.” I would ask, “If you were in my shoes, and you were separated from your daughters, what would you do?” The response was, “I don’t have an answer for you,” or “I’m not qualified to answer this for you,” or “Well, I’m not the one immigrating, sir. Now, is there anything else I can help you with today?”

I had no words. Buried in my own pain and sorrow, I said nothing.

“Yes,” I should have said then. “You can help by ensuring that parents and children remain together, whether they have papers or they don’t, and you can help ensure that they are treated fairly, justly, kindly, humanely, and sensitively, and that you try to understand the circumstances behind their departure from their homeland.”

“Yes,” I should have said then. “You can help by doing what you believe is morally right and you can work to reunite my family as soon as possible.”

As I look at the horrors unfolding before my eyes, I recognize that now is not a time for neutrality. And, by God, now is not a time for silence.

“Yes,” I say now. “You can help by acknowledging what is grossly wrong about locking children in cages and you can help by speaking truth to power.”

“Yes,” I say now. “You can help by making sure vicious behaviors perpetrated by the leaders of our government are stopped and those responsible are brought to justice.”

“Yes,” I say now. “You can help by teaching that no human should stand for the cruelty we are witnessing, and no God teaches us to behave in such a fashion.”

This situation may no longer be about my personal family. But this situation is about my human family. We may not know any single person at the border who is being separated from their children, separated from their parents. But I know my own story, and while living with privilege, I still am a white American adult male, who for six months was separated from his wife and daughters, and who knows the pain of those circumstances.

I am ashamed that my own government would separate parents from children and treat them worse than animals. We know what is right. No one should have to go through what we went through. No one should have to go through what we are witnessing right now. No one.

Take our story. Reflect it through the lens of people who are seeking refuge, asylum, and fleeing their own country. Their circumstances are not ours. Their pain is not ours. Do not confuse the two. Don’t you dare confuse the two.

But recognize that these are people, human beings, parents and children, who are in danger, and they are seeking kindness, love, openness, and warmth. Keeping parents and children together is not about policy or paperwork; it is about doing what is right, what is just, what is decent, and what is moral. In order to form a more perfect Union, we the people have to believe that there is something in this nation that we value that is worth fighting for, not only for ourselves, but for others too.

Paul J. Jacobson is the rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge.

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