CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.
Often, at the beginning of the summer, I am invited to bless the boats alongside a priest as families (some from my congregation) make their seasonal maiden voyage on their private boats from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, out to the Jamaica Bay or Atlantic Ocean. The priest makes his prayer as each boat passes in front of us. I offer the Priestly Blessing (sometimes in Hebrew for the Jewish boaters) and a Nisiyah tova or Tzetchem l’shalom as they go by.
That Sunday morning over a week ago in El Paso, families of a different sort “sailed” in front of me and my colleagues, as they passed by through the doors of a hidden shelter for asylum-seekers, following their release from a local detention center.
Thanks to Rabbi Sarah Reines’ preparation for our time in El Paso, we learned that we could volunteer at this temporary shelter for the “lucky” families, who possessed a phone number or a sponsor. They arrive at these “hidden” shelters for a few hours, perhaps even overnight, until they would get on a bus, or into a car, or on a plane, headed to somewhere in the US. A week later, a white supremacist gunned down 22 people in a nearby Walmart. Now I understand why the location of this shelter is secret.
I learned later, that the shelter is staffed entirely by volunteers and that the rent was $60K per month. The shelter had a large room of cots, a children’s playroom, a dining area, an office, rooms to interview families and to make the phone call, a Hygiene Room, and a clothing “store.”
My morning began in the Children’s Room where I stayed for a few minutes. The language barrier was a problem and well, I’m not a “natural” with small children. Since Cantor Jen Rueben had it down to an art, I moved to a room to sort used clothing into different sizes where I didn’t need to speak to anyone. The donated clothing was ratty, nonetheless, it was a change of clothes, something each family member needed. However, when a new busload of asylum-seekers arrived, I was transferred to the Hygiene Room, to disburse toiletries.
It wasn’t really a Hygiene Room, but rather, a Hygiene Closet, an un-air conditioned, two-doored closet. While there, in between families who passed through, my daughter happened to call me on my cell phone. I complained to her about the lack of air-conditioning in the “room.” She asked me to repeat my complaint word for word back to her. Oh, right, I hadn’t left my town or homeland and walked 500 miles or exorbitantly paid someone to drive me to escape a dangerous situation. Rather, I was kvetching about the lack of air conditioning. Humility is one of the greatest gifts a child can bestow upon parents.
Three years of High School Spanish was for naught. A poster on the door with translations and our charade-game body movements helped Rabbi Kim Geringer and I manage the disbursement of toiletries. But like the story of Balaam and Balaak, every time I opened my mouth, Hebrew came out. Neither a curse, nor blessing, the brain cells dedicated to language had, sadly at that moment, been usurped by Hebrew. Again, another lesson in humility.
After an asylum-seeking family would complete a phone call with a Spanish translator to their sponsor or family member, to arrange for transportation to a home where they would await a hearing, they were sent to the Hygiene Room. Prior to entering the room, there was a box of stuffed animals. With delight, children picked out one stuffed animal and put it into a recyclable grocery bag, that contained the entirety of a family’s earthly possessions. Upon entering the Hygiene Room, where they would receive a large Ziplock worth of goods: diapers in all sizes (they were allotted four diapers), and if needed, a Ziplock bags of infant formula. They received one comb, toothbrushes, one razor, a tube of shaving cream, a bar of soap, one barrette, one hair tie and one headband. One small “travel-size” roll-on deodorant, one hair brush, a small tube of toothpaste, a few tampons or sanitary napkins, one lip balm, and one towel and one washcloth per family member. I invited the girls to select hair ties and barrettes. Alas, there was only one “Elsa” lip balm, which I gave to the first girl who entered the room with her mother. Who knows whether this young girl had even seen the film “Frozen.” Children I know have seen it multiple times.
But I was not there to learn about humility or gratitude. A secondary gain perhaps, but the point was to make this horrific, traumatic trek from Central America a little easier. I was there to volunteer. They did not arrive with suitcases. They arrived with a bag. We didn’t know their stories. We didn’t know their fears. Who knows whom they left behind, or what they left behind, or even where they were going? Which child who came through the “Hygiene Room” perhaps, had to drink water from a toilet? Were these reunited families or separated families? Were they wearing ankle “bracelets” that knew their every move? I do not know the answer to these questions.
We only saw the “lucky ones” who had been released from detention centers.
Nisia Tova and Tzetchem l’shalom, I wanted to say. It was on the tip of my tongue.
Rabbi Marjorie Slome serves the West End Temple in Neponsit, New York.