Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: People were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him. The others said to him, “What are you sitting and doing!” He replied, “What do you care? Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?” They said to him, “But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship.” (Vayikrah Rabbah 4:6)
Some of us see the Dreamers as sharing our ship. They may be our children’s classmates or we may meet them in the community. We are moved by how hard these youth have worked to achieve success in school, work, or the military. We hear echoes from Biblical texts and our own history that compel us to help.
Yet other congregants dissociate themselves from the issue of DACA. They worry about their own economic security — whether their own vessels are seaworthy — failing to recognize that we are all in the same boat.
If 788,000 Dreamers are forced back into the shadows, or worse yet, are deported to countries they don’t remember, we will all be affected — seeing our country act without humanity, coping with the economic repercussions from lost talent, and fearing who will be the next victims of xenophobia.
How do we speak out as Jewish institutions, recognizing that the polarizing political views in America today are represented within our congregational membership? How do we respond as rabbis when our conscience calls us to act? And if we find traction to move forward, how do we guide our congregations to respond to DACA so that our actions make a difference?
Over the past three years, we, Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen, have been researching how synagogues work for social justice in local communities, states, and our nation. We have seen multiple ways in which synagogues effectively respond to the critical issues of our day — the rungs on what we call the “Ladder of Civic Engagement.”
In Genesis 28:12, Jacob dreamed about angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven. Just as the angels were said to have dwelt on earth, congregations eager to support Dreamers would be wise to start from the more accessible lower rungs — volunteering, educating, and donating — and then some congregants may continue the climb with our institutional support.
In responding to the President’s phased termination of the DACA program, many synagogues are finding that their volunteer efforts have enabled them to hear and understand the struggles of the immigrant community. This rung leads us to build relationships with those most affected.
Another non-controversial rung is education. Create programs with professors, lawyers, experts, and Dreamers themselves to understand the issues and build support for further action. Your congregants will be inspired by the successes and aspirations of the Dreamers.
Philanthropy can also support social change. Some Jewish communities are considering raising funds to help DACA youth submit renewal requests by the October 5 deadline by paying the $495 filing fee — a steep financial barrier for any young person with four weeks’ notice. Others are working to fund lawyers so that these young people have legal advice and representation.
Ascending the upper three rungs becomes more challenging to many congregations. Advocacy is about using our voices to create changes in policies and laws. Examples include raising the issue at social events, posting responsibly on social media, and calling representatives.
Organizing entails joining with others as you strategize ways in which to protect our undocumented youth. Collaborating with other synagogues, other houses of worship, and immigrant rights organizations will guide and amplify your efforts.
Joining a movement is the fuel that helps us cross the finish line. The RAC — the voice of our movement — is supporting the most recent bipartisan Dream Act, sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a bill that will pave the way to legal status for these youth.
We feel called to act — by our consciences, by our faith, by our history, by the Dreamers themselves. We will be most effective if we work with our lay leaders and boards to find the rungs they are willing to ascend, and then perhaps inspire them to climb one more.
Rabbi Tarfon urges us forward: The day is short, the work is much…it is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from working on it (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16).
Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen are the co-authors of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America – now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. Rabbi Judith Schindler is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. Judy Seldin-Cohen is a community advocate and author. She has spent the last ten years collaborating on social justice issues with Rabbi Judith Schindler, her then synagogue rabbi and now co-author.