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  • JCRC’s Rachie Lewis on Welcoming the Stranger

    This article was originally posted in the NCJW Massachusetts local blog.

    NCJW takes special interest in immigrants and asylum seekers. In this month’s Deep Dive, Cathy Corman explores advocacy work in these areas with Rachie Lewis, Director of Synagogue Organizing for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).

    Lewis has helped Jews in Greater Boston engage with immigrant and asylum resettlement.  She estimates that more than a thousand Jewish volunteers have worked on immigration and asylum with JCRC in the ten years she’s been in her job, but this number barely scratches the surface. “To some degree,” she says, “I’ll never actually know the numbers. A part of the work that is so beautiful is that there are so many people who can be engaged in different ways. 

    Jews tell Lewis that they are motivated to get involved in refugee resettlement and asylum support “because somebody did this for my family.” She also hears from them publicly that the Bible and Jewish teachings instruct them to care for strangers. “But I feel like the first answer is more prominent. They’ve just said that over and over again: this was my story, this was my family’s story, and somebody did this for us.”

    Rachie Lewis

    Initially, Lewis said, many synagogues got involved with asylum and immigration issues by joining in the sanctuary movement. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not, as a general rule, go into houses of worship to detain people resisting deportation. Many congregations joined a movement to use sacred spaces to provide sanctuary to asylum seekers. “The strategy requires that there are volunteers in these houses of worship at all times,” Lewis said. “It requires a lot of people power.” Lewis helped coordinate efforts among eighteen synagogues which joined several regional coalitions to provide sanctuary. “There were people taking really big risks, and this set the tone for making a lot of other organizing possible,” she said.

    The surge in concern and interest in resettlement and asylum came on the heels of the 2016 election. Volunteers united to create the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN – pronounced ‘beyond’ and sometimes ‘bee-jahn’). The numbers of detainees coming from the southern border with Mexico swelled. ICE didn’t have space in federal facilities along the border and began sending detainees north, many to Massachusetts. To house these asylum seekers, ICE rented beds from four local jails. Most detainees needed lawyers, money to make bond, and an address where they could stay.  Working in these areas made the difference, Lewis says, between “getting out and staying free.”

    “We raised a ton of money to bond people out,” Lewis says. Though there is now only one jail in the area renting space to ICE, JCRC volunteers have chosen to support people who are coming to Massachusetts and are currently detained in locations such as California, Texas, and Louisiana.

    Additionally, Lewis has supported volunteers from synagogues who want to help resettle families coming from around the globe, most recently from Afghanistan. “The same systems of support have also been able to be leveraged,” she said, for moments of crisis. Congregations have sponsored families and served as support on the ground. These congregations have come in “all stripes,” Lewis says, including Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox. JCRC has partnered with Catholic Charities Boston, Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, and Jewish Vocational Service in Boston to support refugee resettlement in the Boston area.

    Lewis says her job is to follow the “energy and interests and hearts of leaders within synagogues.” She assists “the support team piece,” helping all the different members have what they need to “run the show.” BIJAN needs volunteers to provide rides to asylees released from detainment or to appointments with ICE. Also needed are volunteers who are able to help set up apartments and secure places for asylum seekers and refugees to live. 

    Lewis encourages anyone with an interest in joining these efforts to contact her. Lewis’s email is .

    Note: NCJW MA is a member organization of JCRC.