At our monthly WJC Board of Directors meeting last night, I brought to the Board’s attention the work of a new grassroots organization in our area, the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN). After a fruitful discussion, the Board voted unanimously for the WJC to affiliate as a supporter of UIDN. In making this decision, our Board was guided by our congregation’s Vision Statement, which states, in part:
It is our hope that the spirit of holiness and the passion for justice generated within our congregation will overflow into our families, workplaces and community at large so we might do our part in fulfilling the ancient directive “to be a light unto the nations.” (Read the entire Statement here.)
I would like to describe to you some of the history behind the UIDN and our Board’s decision to support it, share some online informational resources, and also consider with you some next steps we might take as a community.
Undocumented immigrants in the United States are here in violation of Federal law. It is within the bounds of that law for the Federal government to deport immigrants who have entered this country illegally. While that is the law of the land, many question whether these laws are workable, reasonable, compassionate or just. There have been repeated efforts in Washington DC in recent history under both Republican and Democratic administrations to amend and change these laws, but none of those efforts have born fruit. In the absence of new legislation, the Obama administration’s strategy was to direct the immigration authorities to only prosecute and deport those undocumented immigrants who had committed a felony, been previously deported, or who posed a threat to public safety. Otherwise, the immigration authorities would usually look the other way.
Under the Trump administration, the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been instructed to carry out the letter of law without exception. In practice, this has meant that any undocumented immigrant can be summarily deported at any time. This includes parents of children (who are themselves American citizens), people who are married to American citizens, business owners and hard-working people, all of whom are tax-paying and otherwise law-abiding members of the community. There are numerous recent cases of families being ripped apart, including in our region. As a result, the undocumented immigrants who live and work in our communities, who are our neighbors, are living in terror. The law as it stands and as it is being currently enforced creates cruel consequences.
For Jews, both our ancient and recent history should compel us to be concerned and to take action. The Torah famously instructs us to care for the stranger, since we know the feelings of the stranger, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. This is a clarion call for empathy. But we don’t have to reach into ancient history to call up our concern. My grandparents made it out of Poland to Ellis Island in 1923. By 1924, due to a rising wave of xenophobia, including intense anti-Semitism, the gates to immigrants were mostly closed – only one more of my grandmother’s siblings made it into the US in 1939. With only a couple of exceptions, the remainder of my grandparents’ families were murdered by the Nazis. We know that many of the people seeking refuge and a new home in the United States today are escaping deadly violence, and certainly grinding poverty. We Jews were once in their position. What are we to do? Is it our duty to try to help?
The question is complex, and requires careful consideration. In order to learn more, several weeks ago WJC Vice President Jon Lewis and I met with Father Frank Alagna, the priest at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Episcopal Church in Kingston. Father Frank has been extremely active over the past months in organizing his church and other churches, synagogues, and community organizations to support and defend undocumented immigrants in Ulster County. Father Frank was especially motivated to do this, as he presides over a bilingual congregation of Spanish and English speakers. When he polled the Spanish speaking members of his church, he was shocked to learn that the vast majority of them were indeed undocumented, and were fearing that their families could be broken up at any moment by ICE. Some of his parishioners were afraid to leave their homes, some were not sending their children to school, and some were finding legal guardians for their children in case they themselves were summarily picked up and deported.
As a result, Father Frank and others (including Rabbi Yael Romer and Congregation Emanuel in Kingston) created the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN). UIDN is still in its early stages, but it is committed to supporting our undocumented neighbors in a variety of ways. UIDN has created an intentionally broad-based Board, consisting of both English and Spanish speakers. Holy Cross/Santa Cruz is providing their non-profit status so that tax-deductible donations can be made to UIDN, but UIDN is independent from the church. Please peruse their website .
By affiliating our congregation with UIDN, we are making a statement that we care about our undocumented neighbors. UIDF intends to mount a variety of initiatives, from simple acts of neighborly caring to creating a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants facing deportation to advocating for immigration law reform, and much more. UIDN is a completely volunteer driven organization, so much will depend on how many community members step forward to participate.
The WJC will be convening an informational gathering at a date that has not yet been determined so that we can ask questions and discuss actions we might take as a community or as individuals to participate in the mission of UIDF. The Board and I also hope that there will be sufficient interest at the WJC such that we can form a task force that will take the lead on this important issue. Please contact me if you are interested or have questions.
Shabbat Shalom and love,
NOTE: One of the strategies being hotly debated currently is becoming a “Sanctuary Congregation.” Neither the WJC Board or I are recommending this step for the WJC, but I expect it will be a topic of discussion when we all do meet. You can learn more about the “Sanctuary Movement” at these sites: