Stories We Cannot Tell

This post has been updated to reflect the latest realities of the work.

Every Shabbat in my congregation, we say a prayer for the government of the United States. Our version of this prayer asks that “God, who commanded all humanity to create just governments, bless and protect the elected and appointed officials of the United States,” and inspire them, among other things, to “let their actions reflect compassion for the poor, the defenseless, and the needy amongst us.”

These days, when I pray these words, I think about people like Armando Rojas, the beloved custodian of congregation Bet Torah in Westchester, NY. Armando worked there for 20 of his 30 years in this country before being detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Despite the congregation’s advocacy efforts on his behalf, Armando was deported to Mexico without a chance to gather his belongings or even say goodbye to his wife and young children. He was left at the border with no money, cell phone, or ID.

My prayer is filled with disappointment and anger toward our government. Because Armando’s story, and the stories of so many families these days – torn apart, some with children still in their infancy – should challenge us: Do these actions reflect who we aspire to be as Americans? Is this our compassion? And, bound by the injunction for the Jewish people to treat strangers as we would treat ourselves – and knowing that prayer is not enough in this moment – I ask: what actions are we called to?

As the targeting and harassment of immigrants in our communities escalated over the past 18 months, the stakes are now astronomical for families facing impossible choices. They want the same things that we all want for our own: safety and security for themselves and their children, the possibility of a brighter future, the opportunity to contribute to our community (as many have for decades), and the assurance that they will not be sent back to countries from which many of them fled in fear for their lives.

And ever-growing numbers of these people are living in terror right here in Massachusetts – terror of being detained, deported, and separated from children who, in many cases, were born in this country and have never lived anywhere else.

I want to share a vignette to put a human face on the work we’re doing right here in Greater Boston, but the risk in doing so is too great for our immigrant neighbors whose stories we’ve learned. They are so vulnerable to this cruel and unpredictable system of enforcement that we dare not share any details that could put them in peril. But I can tell you about the ways in which members of our Jewish community – alongside our interfaith partners in a new coalition called the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN) – are taking action in solidarity with the people who are being affected, and to accompany these individuals on a journey that is terrifying and lonely.

For families who have sought Sanctuary in churches in Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Newton, and elsewhere, we’ve mobilized 18 local Jewish congregations with hundreds of volunteers joining networks of support to provide round-the-clock companions, childcare, and resources to meet the families’ various needs. People held in detention have reached out to our coalition, which has responded by organizing a grassroots network of 700 volunteers, supporting over 150 detainees. BIJAN community members have attended 150 immigration hearings, provided pro bono legal counsel in 12 cases, and trained and mentored non-immigration lawyers to represent these individuals. Together with BIJAN, we’ve raised over $80,000 to bond 26 people out of detention, with ongoing fundraising campaigns to free more detainees.

There is no telling for how long these families – struggling to stay together and live in safety and dignity – will have to endure this ordeal. But our actions, together with other faith and immigrant communities, are helping some families to remain together; whether in churches providing safe havens, or freed from detention and given a shot at pursuing legal cases, or awarded asylum to stay in our country. When our volunteers show up our foreign-born neighbors are less alone in dealing with a frightening situation.

I invite you to learn more about our work and consider joining our efforts, through Sanctuary, accompaniment work, legal support, or contributing to bond funds. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of individuals and families here in Massachusetts as we take action to reclaim the compassion that is missing from our government.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy