It’s hard to describe the feeling of those words when they are uttered by a child whose innocent eyes betray a sense of desperation, pain, loneliness, and confusion. It’s difficult to convey in writing the absolute sense of shame and indignation one feels when seeing the effects that careless policies have on the lives of families, of children, of babies.
This week, I found spiritual fire in a church, which I know may be a rare statement to make as a rabbi. But I knew that my path had to end up there this week after I learned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials were dropping off scores of asylum-seeking families who had exceeded the maximum amount of time in detention. For whatever reason, ICE was dropping these families off at local churches. Of course, ICE was only concerned with dropping the families off and not caring for their immediate needs; out of sight, out of mind. Yet, here were families, many with young children, dropped at a strange location in a city—no less, a country—they are unfamiliar with.
A call came out for community members to help. Quick action was needed, and it was needed yesterday. The Jewish community needed to get involved. To this end, I set up a fundraiser on Facebook with an initially modest goal that would be used to cover some basic supplies and other materials. But, within minutes, everything began to change. People in the local community and beyond began to donate. The amount donated kept rising. In less than twenty-four hours, the fundraiser raised more than $10,000 with no sign of letting up. People were stopping by my office to drop off donated tampons, diapers, clothes, and other goods. It was—simply—remarkable. My team and I used the funds to purchase hygienic products: toothbrushes, socks, toys, and more, all to be donated.
On the first day of the fundraiser, a colleague and I drove out to one of the local churches doing intake. It was there that we saw these families face to face for the first time. It’s an experience I will never forget. For all the media attention and the endless coverage, it can’t be conveyed indirectly. The magnitude of the situation and the utter turmoil these families face as they struggle to survive are unfathomable. But despite everything, these families were happy to be there, sitting in a community church and having a place to stay. Every time the pastor invoked his gratitude that these families were at his church, they all uttered back “Gracias.”
This is a not a time to stand idly by, to invoke a phrase. There is so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done. It is amazing that with almost no formal preparation and limited technical know-how, a small group of people can create a mighty movement to raise funds and awareness that can tangibly improve the life of someone at their hour of greatest anguish. The Jewish community can be a beacon in this regard, as our tradition has shown us time and time again the power of faithful protest against inequity and bigotry. I certainly felt these feelings standing in this church, watching families survive against all odds. It is a humbling feeling. An empowering one.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR, 2018).