Don’t Let the Light Go Out

Rony, a former bus driver, escaped from his native Honduras when his life was threatened. The “mafia” had already killed his father and his brother for failing to pay the required extortion. He was next. Seeking asylum in the US, Rony was arrested and detained at a private prison owned and run by The GEO Group in the California high desert town of Adelanto. I met him this past year, my second visit to the facility. My first attempt was aborted when, along with a busload of people of faith and clergy, I tried to visit detainees there. When GEO learned of our plan, they put the facility on lock-down, not only refusing to let us in, but also ejecting family members waiting to see their loved ones. It was 110 degrees outside.

A recent report by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General flagged serious health and safety standards violations in Adelanto. There have been suicide attempts: nooses fashioned with bed sheets were hanging in 15 of the 20 examined cells. There are no recreational facilities or skills-building classes, and detainees are allowed a one hour visit per day — given the distance from their families, many get few to no visitors. Is this how we want our country to behave?

Our tradition teaches us to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our Statue of Liberty proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” So are we OK with a private prison incarcerating 2,000 human beings for the crime of trying to find refuge and safety, to escape from persecution, violence and extreme poverty?

To shed light on the conditions in Adelanto, Bend the Arc, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and I, organized an interfaith vigil there on the 8th night of Chanukah. At the darkest time of the year, we wanted to shine the candles’ brightness on the reality of our government’s policies towards immigrants and refugees. But we also wanted to offer the expansive light as a symbol of the possibility of hope to those locked behind bars.

Part of our effort was to rally support for Rony. His bond (a form of bail) was set at $10,000, a staggering amount for someone with no ties in the US. We had hoped to get him out by Chanukah, but had not raised sufficient funding. However, just this week, we reached our goal: Rony was bonded out this week, though he still faces a court decision about his asylum application.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against GEO on behalf of thousands of detainees, and we will continue to be vigilant on their behalf.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 


Tornillo: “Shut It Down!” And the Commentary Is Important.

I was privileged to join a bold and visionary group of midwestern Reform rabbis — led by Rabbis Bruce Elder, Miriam Terlinchamp, Joshua Whinston, Jonah Zinn, and Todd Zinn — on a November pilgrimage  to the U.S.-Mexican border in and near El Paso, Texas. The centerpiece of that visit was at Tornillo, a tent-city detention facility for immigrant teenagers. A rally outside the Tornillo camp prominently featured the chant, “Shut It Down!”

I participated in the pilgrimage as the CCAR Board’s representative. I am not at all new to immigration activism — In June, for example, I was arrested, in a civil disobedience action related to immigration at the Arkansas Capitol as part of the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign. However, in mid-November, I didn’t yet feel fully comfortable as I joined the chants, “Shut It Down.”

Today, after further research, I am.

First, some words about my reluctance. Several years ago, URJ Greene Family Camp, one of my two cherished camp homes, had served as a facility where unaccompanied minor immigrants were housed. The nonprofit provider inside the Tornillo facility, BCFS, was also the provider at our camp. Moreover, our colleague, Rabbi Ben Zeidman, who is deeply committed to immigration justice, had visited inside the Tornillo camp with an interfaith clergy delegation which had found conditions to be acceptable. For a moving piece about the important work of Greene Family Camp in those days, please read these words by my friend and fellow Greene alum, Mandy Karp Golman.

The more I learned, though, the more I became convinced that the situation has changed. The facility at Tornillo must be promptly closed, the children detained there must be united with U.S. sponsors without delay, and we must strongly advocate against the establishment of  similar facilities.

During the summer, massive public outcry forced the Trump Administration to back down on its policy of separating undocumented immigrant parents from the children who accompanied them. What most Americans still do not know is that teenage immigrants continue to be separated from responsible non-parental adults with whom they arrive at the border — most often older siblings, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. We must protest all family separations, absent evidence of abuse or significant felony charges. These separations have massively increased the numbers of supposedly “unaccompanied” minors now in U.S. detention.

Back in the days when URJ Greene Family Camp was partnering with BCFS, that nonprofit provider actively sought U.S. sponsors for the truly unaccompanied minors who were in federal custody. Today, government policy has dramatically curtailed BCFS efforts in this regard, putting teens and potential sponsors at great risk. Potential sponsors reasonably fear coming forward in the current environment, exposing them to potential deportation. In fact, the process of seeking sponsors often serves as “bait” to lure family members into processes that may result in their deportation.

The result is a massive multiplication in the numbers of incarcerated teens — and the length, perhaps indefinite, or until they turn eighteen and are eligible for deportation — whose only crime is arriving at our border, seeking freedom in the Land of the Free.

Torah is clear: “You must not oppress strangers, nor harm them” (Exodus 22:21). Our government is perpetrating grave, even permanent, damage, upon a massive and increasing number of young people at our border. For that reason, I am delighted that our Reform Movement has officially joined the Close Tornillo Coalition.

Now, you have the commentary. Let us all raise our voices to demand that our government “Shut It Down!”

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 

Immigration Social Justice

Searching for Possibility and Hope

A smile can make a huge difference. That is what two of my congregants and I discovered when we came to McAllen, Texas to volunteer for a week with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center for immigrants newly released from detention. McAllen is the largest processing center for immigrants seeking to enter the United States. After arriving at the border, they are detained by immigration authorities. If and when they are released, they are taken to the Central Bus Station. That is where staff and volunteers from the Respite Center pick them up and bring them to the center for a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothes, before being accompanied back to the bus station where they are sent off across the country to meet their sponsor — usually a family member. Once there, they will face a court date and the decision of a judge as to whether they can stay here or be deported back home.

These are the lucky ones. They are not placed in detention beyond a few days, and they are not being permanently separated from their children. It is not entirely clear why they are being released while so many others are kept in detention for many months. It may be because they have a sponsor and a credible case for asylum, but no one we spoke to was entirely sure as the system seems to be somewhat arbitrary. However, their situation is far from fortunate. They come primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries torn apart by violence and plagued by extreme poverty. These immigrants are fleeing the violence, often fearful for their own lives and that of their children. Their dangerous journeys average 3-4 weeks during which they travel by foot, by bus, and/or on La Bestia, the freight trains which they ride on the roof. Some of the women are pregnant, some of the adults are carrying newborns.

Once they turn themselves in or are arrested at the border, they are put into detention for 3-4 days in what the immigrants call “La Hielera” — the Ice Box — because of how cold it is in there. One woman, Maria Luisa, told us that she was separated from her two sons, forbidden from hugging them, forced to sleep on the floor with only an aluminum blanket, barely fed a frozen burrito, allowed to shower once for three minutes, and kicked awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. She along with all the others who are released, was forced to wear an ankle monitor to ensure that she would appear for her court date. Her ankle bracelet, as was the case with the others we saw, was tight and uncomfortable, and made her leg swell.

This inhumane treatment is in marked contrast to how these immigrants are welcomed at the Respite Center, which was established four years ago by Sister Norma Pimentel. In that time, something like 100,000 immigrants have come through their doors. The motto over the front door, “Restoring Human Dignity,” is what drives the staff and the revolving groups of volunteers from around the country. The immigrants here are met with kindness, concern and care. When they first arrive, they are rather stone-faced and wary, but soon they relax and respond to the warmth being shown to them. We tried as much as possible to look them each in the face and to smile, acknowledging their humanity. We served them a bowl of chicken soup, helped them find a fresh set of clothes and shoes, and guided them to the showers where we kept two washing machines and two dryers going constantly to keep up with the volume of towels. Because the clothes on their backs have been worn for close to a month, we threw them away. We also put together snack bags and sandwiches to take with them when they returned to the bus station for the next step of their journey.

One of my congregants was asked by some of her friends whether the children we saw actually belonged to the adults they were with. There is no question that these adults were their parents! They demonstrated a great deal of love and affection for their children, and the children were clearly very attached to them. They are people like you and I, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. “There but for the grace of God go I…” They are looking for a new start, one with possibilities, one with hope. As we enter the month of Elul on the road to the High Holy Days, we too are in search of a new beginning. Let us be thankful for our good fortune. Let us also resolve to remember those whose lives have been disrupted by war, civil unrest, gangs, and poverty. At the very least, we can offer them a smile, a reminder that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Immigration Social Justice

The Strangers among Us

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34).

“You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike” (Lev. 24:22)

As a Jew and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, these verses resonate particularly strongly with me, as does the request for asylum from so many fleeing the violence in Central America. My personal history and that of my people compel me to respond, now. Aside from writing letters, donating money, speaking at rallies, I feel the need to do something practical, on the ground. As a friend, Chani Beeman, posted: “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, you’re doing it now.”

So, last week, I visited a detainee in Adelanto, California, home of a private detention center owned and operated by GEO, one of the largest private prison companies in the country. This facility currently houses two thousand immigrants. Since it opened in 2011, Adelanto has faced accusations of insufficient medical care and poor conditions, and a number of detainees have died in custody.

Luis (a pseudonym) is 24 years old. He fled Honduras several months ago because his life was in danger. He had worked for ten years as a driver of a 25 passenger minibus. What he refers to as the “mafia” extorted money from his family. Luis’ mother sold her house in order to meet this gang’s demands. Eventually, unable to pay up, the family was at its mercy: Luis’ father, two uncles, and brother were all murdered, and Luis was next. So he fled, leaving behind his beloved mother and his three young children.

He traveled by bus from Honduras to Mexico where he worked for a few months. He says the Mexicans were very kind and generous, but he was only able to make enough money to feed himself. His goal is to pull his mother out of poverty and to buy her another house. Not to mention the fact that Mexico is no more welcoming to Central American migrants than we are. Luis traveled on the roof of La Bestia, or The Beast, a network of freight trains from Mexico to the US border,  on which migrants travel at the risk of their lives. It took him a month because he was apprehended numerous times along the way by Mexican authorities, and repeatedly sent back. When he finally crossed the US border, he was arrested and has been in detention for three months.

Luis has appeared before a judge three times, and has one more chance to prove his asylum claim. Unfortunately, he has no actual proof that his life is in danger. And he does not have an attorney. According to the Los Angeles Times, 95% of asylum seekers from Honduras without attorneys lose their claim. His final court date is on August 8th.

This was my fourth visit to Adelanto. The first was in 2014 to attend a City Council meeting to protest the building of a private jail to house the overflow of inmates from Los Angeles County. The second was in the summer of 2017 when a group of clergy and people of faith joined CIVIC, now Freedom for Immigrants, to visit detainees. When the GEO facility heard we were coming, they went on lockdown, not only denying entrance to us, but also ejecting waiting family, friends and young children in 110 degree heat. The third visit was recently, to stand during a court appearance with another detainee seeking asylum.

Later in July, I plan to volunteer with Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas to provide comfort to immigrants seeking to enter the US. I also plan to attend Luis’ court hearing in August. It is the very least I can do.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Immigration Social Justice

Strive to Be Humane

Following the path blazed by Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the RAC, and by Rabbi David Stern, President of the CCAR, I journeyed from Dallas to McAllen to see, to learn, and to protest the morally offensive and deeply destructive policy of separating immigrant children.

I traveled by bus in a League of United Latin American Citizens organized caravan. This proved to be important, because this is deeply personal for the leaders and members of the Hispanic-American community. Just as Jews take the injustices rained on Israelis very personally, because we have “skin in the game,” American Hispanics are taking this situation personally. Again and again, I heard the phrase, “These are our people, our families, our children,” and every time I thought of my family and friends in Israel. Yet, besides myself and another Jew, there were a half dozen Muslims, two Methodist Anglo ministers, people of every skin tone.

What we arrived at were streets of windowless warehouses, and the facility holding hundreds of children was no different. These prisons have been characterized many ways: Concentration camps (hyperbole), summer camps (ridiculous), detention centers (accurate but euphemistic). The most accurate phrase I can formulate is “warehouse internment building.” These children are being warehoused in a storage building designed for tires and floor tiles, now repurposed to store children.

Joined by people from San Antonio and Austin, several hundred Americans of all stripes and backgrounds gathered from a shared sense that this policy violates our religious morals, our American values, our innate sense of decency. We chanted, held our signs, and listened to moving, impassioned words from the organizers, while a few watchful Border Patrol agents observed us from the prison parking lot.

Then the reality of what brought us here pulled up in front of us. A bus rolled up to the facility. We saw bars on the windows, with a cage wall behind the driver. A dozen heads, hands, and faces of children and teens could be seen inside this rolling jail, built to hold felons and convicts.

It was too much. You could hear the collective gasp from the assembled. The here-to-orderly crowd surged, slowly, irresistibly, toward, in front of, all around, the bus. Pent up emotions poured forth; people cried, shouted, touched the bus, pushed against the door, and grabbed front grill to stop its progress. Others turned toward the up-to-now ignored border agents, shouting at them, pleading with them, berating them.

The bus was immobilized. It was dramatic and frightening, no doubt for the children inside, as well. Some of us intuited this immediately, and those of us alongside the windows started to wave at them. We smiled. Some walked up and touched the windows with their palms spread. The captives inside responded in kind, spreading their fingers against the glass windows of their confinement. Those of us who spoke English called out, “We support you,” or perhaps more helpful for a child, “We love you!” It was instantly translated into Spanish, “Hemos venido a ayudar,” “No tengas miedo,” and mostly, “Te amamos!” It was a study in contrasts; those of us on the sides, smiling, waving, shouting encouragement, others at the front and back, shouting, crying, angry, and frustrated.

More and more agents came out of the internment center. A few appeared in militarized, camouflage SWAT regalia. The local police also arrived, and a cordon moved toward us. Several of the organizers quickly started negotiating with them.

Rev. Mike, a hoary veteran of the Civil Rights movement, who reminisced with me about Rabbis Abraham Heschel and Levi Olan, said out-loud, “We didn’t prepare for this; people need to be trained for this.” At his behest, a number of us started to urge the crowd back out of the street. It was not easy, emotions were raw, righteous outrage held center-stage. Most gradually obeyed, and the police advanced. But impassioned individuals, weeping, angry, overcome with grief at actually seeing the children caged, kept returning to points of confrontation, to the bus, to the cordon. It took about 20 minutes to walk everybody back. Eventually everybody returned to the original point of protest. Last to leave were those touching the windows.

Unfortunately, not satisfied to have the situation defused, several officers waded into the crowd, intent on arresting or citing someone they felt had acted egregiously. Again, the protest leaders negotiated with police amidst the rising agitation, and they agreed to return to the other side of the street with only a driver’s license. Gradually, our energy, if not our anguish, defused. A few of us went back to the police and agents, shook their hands, and thanked them for their restraint.

On the long ride home I reflected on how all of us, protesters, law enforcement, all of America, it seems, but most profoundly, the innocent children, have been ensnared by this foul, cruel, misdirected policy. I’d like to think the tide is turning, that we are retreating from this unworthy idea, away from this age-old logic of abusers and perpetrators, that believes the best way to get compliance from adults is to torment their children.

Now the administration tells us, families will now be incarcerated together, indefinitely, as if this were the only answer, as if we have not already formulated better, more humane solutions. And so this battle for the future of these children will continue for the foreseeable future.  But continue we must, as Hillel the Elder demanded, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be humane.”


Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis serves Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound Texas, where he is also an instructor at the University of North Texas, and a police chaplain. 

Immigration Social Justice

Witness to Cruelty: Bringing Compassion to McAllen

The mother from Nicaragua stood before our multi-faith group of forty religious leaders this morning in the simple and dignified space of the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, cradling her sleeping infant in her arms. “We are here because my country is no longer safe for my child.” By this writing, she is already on a bus to San Francisco, her ticket purchased by relatives there, her safe passage arranged by Sister Norma and the remarkable staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

She, like the other families we met in the Respite Center, is among the lucky ones – who can still cradle their babies, who can still play with their children on the colorful mats in the corner, who were able to take their first shower in weeks, to wash off the mud and cold of passage.

It was some combination of chance, powerful love, and spiritual commitment that landed mother and child on that westbound bus. The love and commitment of volunteers and faith communities who share time, supplies, food and medical services; and the luck of a given moment on a given day. I asked one of the staff at the Respite Center how that mother and that child could still be together in the face of the Administration’s cruel and draconian requirement that children be taken from their parents at the border, and she shrugged: maybe a compassionate border guard, maybe because the child was just a baby, maybe our prayers worked.

We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. The name of this policy, “Zero Tolerance,” is Orwellian at best. The practice of ripping children from their parents at the border is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom, because it deprives security professionals of discretion. It is Zero Coherence because it expends security resources indiscriminately, instead of focusing them on the populations who might put us at risk. It has been a violation of core Jewish values, and an affront to the American values of which Dreamers dream.

The President’s recent Executive Order, while a seeming reversal in the face of public outcry, will not address core injustices. It makes no provision for reuniting the 2300 already separated children with their families. It offers no change in the fundamental flaws, and smokescreen, of so-called Zero Tolerance. A narrow Executive Order cannot restore heart to what is heartless.

Our visit today was supposed to conclude with a visit to the Border Detention Center – I had hoped to report to you first-hand about the cages of separation and the conditions there. For reasons not totally clear – some combination of serious flash floods and government bureaucratic confusion – we were not permitted to visit.

So the work of calling for transparency must continue – not only by the forty leaders on our bus, but by everyone of us who cares about the conscience, heart and destiny of America.

In this week’s parshah, the ruler of Edom earns a reputation for callousness and injustice by uttering two simple words to Moses and the Israelites seeking to pass through his territory: lo ta’avor. Those words have become an emblem in our tradition for blind and simplistic enmity. When our nation speaks an unconditional lo ta’avor to refugees seeking safety from violence and pursuing a life of dignity and freedom, when our president uses the word “infest” to describe their presence in a land of freedom, the echoes are more than troubling.

But today in McAllen, we outshouted those echoes with the laughter of children, with songs of hope from Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, whites and people of color, locking arms and joining forces to bring a sense of solidarity to a border town, a sense of compassion, and justice to our nation. We leave McAllen pledging vigilance for the safety of all children and families, and for the protection of the values precious to us all.

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and is President of The Central Conference of American Rabbis.


A Poem about Then(?)

Comparisons between the Holocaust and contemporary issues are difficult to assess.

We maintain that the Shoah was unique in its purpose, scope, and cynical systematic organization. We argue that to label each injustice as a forerunner to a new genocidal move by evil people cheapens the memory of the 6 million and fails to recognize that complexity and nuance through which evil enters our world.

Yet we also maintain that the sacred pledge of “Never again” maintains its meaning only if we are willing to assess each act of injustice to determine whether it might be part of a systematic, strategic move against another group of people. We easily remember the end result of the Holocaust – the murder of 6 million Jews and another 5 million other people. But we want to remember also that the Holocaust did not arise ex nihilo (out of nothingness). It was a slow piling on of one injustice after another, one act after another to dehumanize the victims and desensitize the rest of the population.

A Poem about Then(?)
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

They say it started slowly
One injustice at a time
They desensitized us quite deliberately
‘Til we became partners in their crime

They preyed upon our prejudice
Against those “outsiders” in our land
Whom they depicted as foreign parasites
In a conniving sleights of hand

They moved from the rapists and the criminals
To judges, the rule of law, and the independent press
Hammering upon our dissatisfaction
Until we also were ready to disposses

We ignored the times they slandered us
Because they flattered with such skill
We forgave the times they marginalized us
Because our brethren were part of it, still

We forgot that we were once like them
Hated immigrants, blackballed outsiders
We forget how much we suffered then
Because we’re now comfortable insiders

Are we discounting the values we professed,
Those messages we should amplify?
Take care of the children, they’re our future
Love the stranger, Don’t stand idly by

When we declared “Never again would we let it happen”
Was that just the killing or the xenophobic mindset too?
Was it the systematic undermining of morality?
Or just that they came for me… the Jew?

They say it started slowly
That the killing came much later
After the soil of our souls had been fertilized
By a master manipulator

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.

Immigration Reform Judaism Social Justice

One Big Victory, No Matter How Small: Immigration Reform

Yestel Velasquez is a deeply-rooted member of the New Orleans community who has literally helped rebuild the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yestel is a community leader fighting against civil rights abuses and racial profiling in New Orleans. He is also an undocumented immigrant who has lived and worked in America for nearly a decade.

On May 13, 2014, Yestel was caught up in a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while getting his car fixed at an autoshop frequented by Latino clients. Detained by ICE, Yestel filed a complaint with Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and was soon after granted a three months stay of his deportation.  He was not, however, released from detention.

On Monday, August 4th, Yestel was informed by ICE that his stay would be revoked and he would be deported by the end of the week.

How do I know about Yestel Velasquez?  Because over a year ago, as Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, we pledged as Reform rabbis to work for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. We rejoiced when bipartisan immigration legislation passed the Senate, but did not stop our work once the House of Representatives refused to act.

Instead, led by our intrepid Lead Organizer, Joy Friedman of Just Congregations, we worked to find out how we could make a difference in the lives of undocumented Americans. At our Chicago CCAR convention, we learned about the movement to prevent deportations that would not occur were the bill passed by the Senate to become the law of the land. By the spring meetings of our Commission on Social Action (CSA) in May, we decided the Reform Movement would engage in immigration reform, one human being at a time, by protecting immigrant families from being torn apart through deportations.

It is a long and instructive (but not appropriate for this piece) story about how we worked closely with the CSA to find national partners who would ask us to help in the defense of potential deportees.

Last Tuesday, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) heard of Yestel’s plight and asked us to act quickly. The CSA leadership thoughtfully and quickly vetted the case, and by Wednesday, the 20 rabbi ROR advisory team was authorized to act. We had our phone scripts and were armed with information and the moral high ground. Alongside partners across the country, we were ready to help save Yestel and his family. In just a few hours, ROR made eleven phone calls to ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale, and another eleven to Director David Rivera of the New Orleans ICE office.

We all called to share our concern with the deportation of Mr. Yestel Velazquez. Sometimes we had no choice but to leave voicemail messages; other times we were able to engage in conversation. I made our first phone call to Deputy Director Ragsdale’s office and he didn’t understand why a rabbi from Chicago was calling. By our last call of the day, we had made an impression – “And where are you calling from, Rabbi?” he asked.

By Thursday, we heard great news from our partners at NDLON: ICE released Yestel from detention and granted him a new one-year stay of removal! More importantly, ICE guaranteed Yestel protection from retaliatory deportation.

I do not know if we saved a single life.  But I am glad to have been part of the team that is working, one person at a time, to save the entire world.

Next time the chance comes, do you want to join the team?

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Chicago Sinai Congregation, in Chicago, IL.  

Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We Stand With Ruth as We Get Ready for Shavuot

Tomorrow, on Sinai, we will affirm the purpose of our freedom from Egypt.
Tomorrow we will remember our history and our values, our mitzvot.
Tomorrow we will stand with Ruth.

We invite you to speak – even in the briefest of ways – to the Ruths of today.
We invite you to use whatever part of this liturgy speaks to you and your community.
We invite you to stand with Ruth.

And if you do, please let us know by clicking here

On this Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. We stand with rabbis and their communities across the continent in calling still for comprehensive immigration reform. Why? Congress has debated reform for far too many years while millions of aspiring Americans remain in the shadows, their lack of legal status barring them from good jobs and rendering school scholarships almost unattainable. We will not give up. Over the past seven weeks, we have counted the days from Egypt to Sinai, and we will not stop counting until all the Ruths have been welcomed home.

And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?

Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).

Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:

I am Ruth.

With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.

We are all Ruth.

I am Naomi.

I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter.

On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.

We are all Naomi.

I am Boaz.

I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.

We are all Boaz.

* * *

On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.

We stand with Boaz who looked into the face of the stranger and accepted responsibility, welcoming Ruth and teaching for the generations the ideal of chesed/loving-kindness, just as his grandfather Nachshon demonstrated action by leading others into the Red Sea.

We stand with Naomi who sought the well-being of others, who defied the example of her husband, Elimelech, a man who fled from his responsibility to others, whose narrow vision, selfishness, and jealousy led to his own demise.

We stand with Ruth who graciously said:

“Your people shall be my people,” who was the immigrant becoming citizen, the outsider becoming insider, whose descendent King David gives us even now a sense of promise.

On this Shavuot, may we be inspired to act with chesed with aspiring Americans, as we stand with Ruth.

Immigration Rabbis Social Justice

We Stand with Ruth of Moab, And We Stand With the Ruths of Today

This blog is the last in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the Omer to Immigration Reform. This Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. This Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. Learn more and join the mailing list.  

We Stand With Ruth of Moab 

The Book of Ruth begins with the introduction, “It happened in the days when the judges judged” and concludes with the birth of King David, the representative figure for Malchut, the sephira of sovereignty.  The book itself is a kind of cri de couer for a better time—free of this book’s rampant poverty, loneliness and maltreatment (in Ruth 2:9 Boaz warns his workers not to molest Ruth, implying that they regularly molested other women).  We know that that is the Biblical view of the period of the Judges, when periodically “Israel did what was wicked in the eyes of Adonai” (Judges 4:1 et al.) because “in those days there was no king in Israel; each person would do what was right in one’s own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

For while it was a time when the Judges judged, they did not seem able or interested to judge how they might stop the famine which had sent Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi and her family into exile in Moab to seek food.  In our own time, so many people come to the United States to flee famine, drought, poverty or political oppression, often because they have given up hope that the powers in their own countries will be able to assist them, or care about assisting them.  They too are searching for a sovereignty which cares for them.  They have learned to believe that Americans do care.

To leave Eretz Yisrael for another land was a major decision, just as it is today.  To leave the country of one’s birth, however oppressive its living conditions, remains a difficult decision, never made lightly.  Today’s immigrants, like those in the Book of Ruth, have to abandon family, friends, the only language they know, sometimes the only place they have known.  Naomi, widowed by the man who led them into Moab, speaks of herself often as a bitter woman.

Her husband’s name was Elimelech, “My God is Sovereign”.  Yet what is sovereign in this book?  Naomi seems to believe that for each person—at least in her family—homeland is sovereign; in the book’s most famous passage, 1:14-17, three times Naomi urges Ruth and her sister Orpah to return (shovna)to their homesthe source for the custom of turning away potential converts three times.  They were all immigrants, Naomi held, and with their husbands dead, the sisters should return to the place from which they came.  But Ruth perceives a higher obligation—a higher sovereignty, if you will; using the same word as her mother-in-law, Ruth says, “Don’t entreat me to abandon you, to turn back (la-shuv) from you.”  For Ruth, to “return” to her own home would be to turn away from her proper home—the home she felt called upon to go to, because of her loyalty and love for Naomi.  If this book is a tribute to the rewards that come from following the precepts of the Torah (obedience to parents [or in-laws], caring for the stranger, leaving grain for the poor, etc.), Ruth turns to the sovereignty of God rather than the sovereignty of her own native place.  But the sefirah of Malchut also has a human dimension, representing kenesset Yisrael, the community of Israel—since it is through the community of Israel that God’s sovereignty is manifest.  When Ruth embraces the people Israel in choosing to go with Naomi, she embraces this dual dimension of Malchut as well.

The implications of this decision for today’s immigrants is instructive.  While we usually attribute primarily economic motives to contemporary immigrants’ desire to remain in the United States, we do our country a disservice by playing down a motive similar to Ruth’s: a belief, or a desire to believe, that the United States is a more caring country than the one from which they came.  How often do we tarnish that belief with the insensitivity, fear, and hostility we show particularly to undocumented immigrants, but often to all immigrants! How insensitive we often are to the still present American commitment to being a beacon to the oppressed—to the malchut, if you will, of the “American dream”—and of the American people as, at their best, the embodiment of it.

As a result of Ruth’s decision to remain with Naomi, the older woman feels an obligation to care for her.  A word that pervades the book, chesed, usually translated “love” or “lovingkindness”, really means love borne of a covenant.  Ruth shows chesed to Naomi, Naomi shows it to her, and Boaz shows it to both of them.  This covenantal love stems from the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which the Holy One will renew with us when the period of the Omer climaxes with Shavuot.  Devotion to the covenant is a sign of acceptance of the sovereignty of the God who made it—ol malchut shamayim, the “yoke” of the rule of heaven, and ol mitzvot, the “yoke” of the mitzvot.  Ol in Hebrew is related to the word al, above, with the sense that the yoke links us to the God above, rather than the more usual image of joining two creatures on the same level.

Are we ready to feel a sense of “covenant” with the undocumented immigrants of our time?  Are we ready to link them with the memories of grandparents or other relatives who endured many hardships to reach these shores—often out of the same motives as today’s undocumented?  And if we say, “Well, our ancestors came legally,” we forget that most of them came here at a time when immigrants were wanted, invited, encouraged by the state.  Now that the state is hostile to immigrants, to which sovereignty are we going to be loyal, that of a welcoming, covenanting God, or a too often frightened state?  Or, in the language of the Book of Ruth, are we going to be  citizens of a too often uncaring rule of Judges, or of the ideal, embracing sovereignty of God’s Malchut?

The season in which we read this book makes our choice quite clear.

We Stand With the Ruths of Today

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom of Chicago speaks with Erendira Rendon, Lead Organizer at the Resurrection Project in the Pilson neighborhood of Chicago. As Naomi stood with Ruth of Moab, Reform rabbis are standing with the Ruths of today – undocumented immigrants like Ere. Watch the Youtube video. 

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.