November 13, 2018

95-Year-Old Nazi Collaborator Deported to Germany

Screenshot from Twitter.

The last known living Nazi collaborator in the United States was deported on August 21 to Germany.

According to ABC News, Jakiw Palij, 95, was an armed guard at the Trawniki death camp in Poland, where he ensured that none of the 6,000 Jews that were murdered in a camp-wide slaughter in November 1943 were able to escape.

Palij gained entry into the United States in 1949 by lying to immigration officials that he didn’t collaborate at all with the Nazis and was instead working in his hometown in Germany. He became a citizen in 1957.

However, in 2004, a federal judge ordered Palij to be deported after federal investigators unearthed Palij’s Nazi background. There has been bipartisan support for years for Palij’s deportation, but the fact that he hasn’t been a German citizen since immigrating to the United States caused the deportation to be stalled until now.

ABC is reporting that President Trump made Palij’s deportation a top priority for German Ambassador Richard Grenell.

“It’s really a credit to President Trump, who was very clear about this case, made clear he wanted this individual out of the United States,” Grenell told Fox and Friends.

Grenell also praised the recently installed German leaders for their desire to get Palij back. It is not yet known what Germany will do with him.

Director Defends ‘Anne Frank’ Production

An upcoming Los Angeles production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” has come under fire in the wake of reports that the Holocaust-themed drama had replaced Nazis with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as the villains.

The play, based on the famous teenage Shoah victim’s diary and published in 1947, is set in a hidden “secret annex” in Amsterdam where the Frank family and others hid for two years before they were betrayed to the Gestapo.

Director Stan Zimmerman appeared on CNN to set the record straight, explaining that although he has cast predominantly Latino and Latina actors, it has not morphed into an undocumented immigration story. “If you come to the production looking for ICE members you will be disappointed,” he said.

Zimmerman explained that the casting was inspired by a CNN report about a Jewish woman from Los Angeles who sheltered an undocumented Latina woman and her U.S.-born daughters after her husband was deported and she feared the same fate. The Jewish woman who created a safe house for the family anonymously told CNN, “What was done to us cannot happen to other people.”

Zimmerman emphasized that the production, which will run at the Dorie Theatre at The Complex from Sept. 6-23, is “a word for word presentation of the 1997 Broadway production that Natalie Portman starred in. No words will be changed. We are not replacing the Nazis with ICE. The only parallel I’m making is that there is a safe house here in L.A. today [like] there were safe houses in Amsterdam and other places. The rest is art. People will interpret it the way they will.”

The director noted that Genesis Ochoa, 16, who plays Anne and David Gurrola, 15, who portrays Peter Van Daan, were not aware of Anne Frank’s story before they auditioned for the play. “Today it’s not part of the curriculum, which is a sad fact,” he said, especially since according to a New York Times survey, the memory of the Holocaust is fading,

Zimmerman hopes to reach and educate a new audience with the production, but underscored that it’s being done “out of love and honor for her story. I want people to know that as a Jew, I would never demean her story.”

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs at the Dorie Theatre at The Complex from Sept. 6-23. Tickets are $25 online/$30 door and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com

My Immigration to America

When my son was a baby he went to daycare. I was a single parent who had to work, so while it broke my heart to not be able to stay home with him, I found the best possible daycare I could, and went to work. He did well and thrived with the lovely women who took care of him. It was very hard on me, but not so much for him as he was only six months old and unaware he was in daycare. One day when Charlie was a little shy of two however, I took him to daycare and he was not having it. He had what can only be described as a catastrophic meltdown.

I tried to calm him down, they tried to calm him down, and before long we were both crying and inconsolable. The owner of the daycare came and tried to help, but it was a mess. After about 20 minutes they literally had to peel him out of my arms. He looked at me while screaming his head off, calling for me, and his eyes begging me not to go. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and spent the next hour talking to the owner of the daycare, telling her I was going to quit my job and Charlie would not be back. She told me it would be fine and said I should go to work.

There were no camera phones or video chatting back then, so I just had to leave, not able to see him or he would have lost it again. I waited out of sight for another two hours until he stopped crying. I then went to work and cried for the rest of the day. I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head like a time bomb until I was able to go get him. The recollection of that day for this blog makes me cry. I cry for my young self, newly divorced and raising a baby on my own, and I cry for all the mothers and fathers at the borders who are having their babies ripped away.

I had nightmares of my son screaming for a long time, and he was home with me. Imagine what the mothers and fathers at the borders are feeling not knowing where their children are. What are the children thinking while they are alone, on concrete floors, in cages, without their parents? It breaks my heart. I am devastated by what is happening at our border. Devastated as a mother and as an immigrant. I have been an immigrant 3 times in my life. Once when my parents left Israel after the war for England, and again when my family moved to Canada to build a life for us.

The third time was when I immigrated to the United States at the age of 24 to start my life over after surviving a violent crime. Important to note that I came here for vacation and never left. I stayed illegally for a year. Because I was from Canada, nobody batted an eyelash. I lived here in Los Angeles, worked illegally for cash under the table at a doctor’s office, and nobody ever asked me a single question. I then got engaged, got married, and was issued a Green Card. It was easy because of where I came from. I blended in and  would do it all again to have left Canada when I did.

I understand why these people are risking their lives to escape from their homelands. I understand it, and frankly I support it. I believe people should be able to start over in a place that is safe and welcoming. I would do the same thing if it meant I could give my child a safe place to grow up and pursue his dreams. As for the people who say they are all dangerous killers and rapists who are taking our jobs, I can only shake my head and feel sorry for you at the same time I want to punch you in the face. Trump and his cold, heartless cult followers are crazy.

I am embarrassed by this administration. I am worried about the people who are being detained. I want to welcome every single child waiting to be reunited with their parents into my home for a hug, a bed, and simple kindness. I want to hug every parent who is praying to get the children back in the same way I was hugged at daycare. I want to understand how it is possible that people support this president and his dangerous and clearly failing mind. There but for the grace of God my friends. One of the blessings that comes with being blessed, is sharing your good fortune. As a county we should welcome people to share in our random good luck of being here already.

I’m guessing some dumbass Trump supporters will read this and contact the authorities to have me deported. It’s happened before and it will happen again. I find it quite entertaining. Almost 30 years ago I was an illegal immigrant so if they want to come for me, come on. I’ll wait here for you. You can reach me at angel@jewishjournal.com. Oy to the vey with these people. We can do better America. We are better. The only shot in hell we have to turn this around is to vote. VOTE. My message to those who were lucky enough to build a life here, remember your journey and where your family came from. We are a nation built by immigrants. We are what makes America great, so use your voice to vote. Make the journey easier for those coming after us, so they can keep the faith.

Rabbis, other clergy gather in support of sanctuary bill

Demonstrators show support for immigrants outside the Hall of Justice. Photo by Nicholas Cheng.

About 100 protesters from Jewish and other faith groups gathered outside the Hall of Justice on Temple Street to call for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) to end cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to support the so-called sanctuary bill.

The demonstrators banged drums and chanted in Spanish and English on the building’s steps, as an elaborate ice sculpture of the word ICE melted under the afternoon sun. Their message to L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was clear: Stop working with ICE.

“My grandfather crossed the Canadian border to come here illegally in 1920. Under [President Donald] Trump’s ICE regime, he would have been sent back to Europe and I would have died in the Holocaust,” said Aryeh Cohen, Rabbi-in-Residence for Bend the Arc.

“We are all immigrants. We know what it’s like to feel vulnerable in a strange land,” said Rabbi Joel Simonds, the Jewish Center for Justice’s executive director. “We want the sheriff to protect us and to advocate for bills that would make us safer.”

Senate Bill 54, scheduled for a State Assembly vote later this month, would limit the information that could be provided to ICE agents on county jail inmates and disallow local law enforcement from sharing information with immigration officials. The bill was introduced in response to the Trump administration’s broadened deportation efforts of undocumented immigrants.

McDonnell opposes the bill, saying that it would hinder custody transfer of violent criminals to federal authorities. The LASD did not respond to requests for comment.

Bill Brown, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff and president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said SB 54 would sever local enforcers from federal resources that they rely on to keep dangerous and violent criminals from returning to the streets.

“I think they [the protestors] should know we are certainly sensitive to the plight of the immigrant community who are law abiding. It is a small element within that community with the express goal to commit crime that we are talking about,” he said.

But Guillermo Torres, senior organizer for Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), said immigrants with no criminal backgrounds have been targeted by ICE — such as Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, 49, who was picked up by agents after dropping off his daughter for school in Lincoln Heights. Avelica-Gonzalez, a Mexican citizen who has lived illegally in the United States for 25 years, had two misdemeanor convictions at the time of his arrest: a DUI in 2008 and another for receipt of stolen car tags in 1998, when a friend gave him a vehicle registration tag that was not issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. ICE officials cited those convictions as reason for detaining and deporting him. In June, his lawyers settled Avelica-Gonzalez’s misdemeanor convictions, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Why would the sheriff want to collaborate with an agency that wants to separate mothers and fathers from their children?” Torres said, before marching with other faith leaders to present a letter to the LASD.

Also at the protest was a smaller group of anti-SB 54 protestors who argued that the bill would protect criminal undocumented immigrants who could do harm.

“We want legal immigrants,” said Robin Hvidston, executive director for Claremont-based We the People Rising, an anti-undocumented immigration group. “Return to your home country and then come to this country, legally.”

Rabbis, other clergy demonstrate to support SB 54

Photo by Nicholas Cheng

About 100 protesters from Jewish and other faith groups gathered outside the Hall of Justice on Temple Street to call for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to end state cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) and to support the so-called sanctuary bill.

They banged drums and chanted in Spanish and English on the building’s steps, as an elaborate ice sculpture of the word ICE, melted under the noon Sun. Their message to LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was clear. Stop working with ICE.

 

“My grandfather crossed the Canadian border to come here illegally in 1920. Under Trump’s ICE regime he would have been sent back to Europe and I would have died in the Holocaust,” said Aryeh Cohen, Rabbi-in-Residence for Bend the Arc.

“We are all immigrants. We know what it’s like to feel vulnerable in a strange land,” said Joel Simonds, the Jewish Center for Justice’s executive director. “We want the Sheriff to protect us,and to advocate for bills that would make us safer.”

Senate Bill 54, scheduled for a State Assembly vote later this month, will limit information to ICE agents on county jail inmates and disallows local law enforcement from sharing information with immigration officials. The bill was introduced in response to the Trump administration’s broadened deportation efforts of undocumented immigrants.

Photo by Nicholas Cheng

 

Sheriff McDonnell opposes the bill, saying that it would hinder custody transfer of violent criminals to the feds. The LASD did not respond to requests for comment.

Bill Brown, the Santa Barbara County sheriff and president of the California State Sheriffs Association said SB 54 would cut local enforcers from federal resources which they rely on to keep dangerous and violent criminals from returning to the streets.

“I think they (the protestors) should know we are certainly sensitive to the plight of the immigrant community who are law abiding. It is a small element within that community with the express goal to commit crime that we are talking about,” he said.

But Guillermo Torres, senior organizer for Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), says immigrants with no criminal backgrounds have been targeted by ICE – like Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, who was picked up by agents after dropping off his daughter for school in Lincoln Heights.

Photo by Nicholas Cheng

 

“Why would the Sheriff want to collaborate with an agency that wants to separate mothers and fathers from their children?” he said, before marching with other faith leaders to present a letter to the LASD.

Also at the protest was a smaller group of anti-SB 54 protestors who argued that SB 54 would protect criminal undocumented immigrants that could do harm.

“We want legal immigrants,” said Robin Hvidston, executive director for Claremont-based We The People Rising, an anti-undocumented immigration group. “Return to your home country and then come to this country, legally!”

L.A. rabbis arrested at ICE protest

Los Angeles Police Department official arrested Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg for failure to comply with a police officer outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. Photo by Ryan Torok

Several area rabbis were among more than 30 protesters arrested April 13 in downtown Los Angeles for an act of civil disobedience to call attention to the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

The group was taken away after blocking a driveway to the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) Los Angeles, booked at Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) headquarters and released by mid-afternoon.

Bend the Arc Rabbi-in-Residence Aryeh Cohen said the act of civil disobedience demonstrated a refusal to accept Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) treatment of undocumented immigrants.

“What it says to ICE, the institution, is that we are intending to put our bodies in between them and … deportations and detentions of people who have been in this country for a long time,” Cohen said in a phone interview. “I think what it said to LAPD is our fight is not with them but with ICE.”

The protest, which began around 10 a.m. several blocks away, brought together Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders and community members who chanted, “Exodus from detention!” as they marched toward the Detention Center, from where vans leave to round up immigrants. The center, itself, is a federal jail downtown that holds individuals for immigration-related crimes, among other offenses.

Participants in the protest, which came on the third day of Passover, drew parallells between the Israelites’ Exodus story from bondage to liberation and the plight of undocumented immigrants who live in fear of being detained.

“I’m standing with my brothers and sisters in faith … on behalf of the undocumented and the refugee and immigrant communities that are being targeted now. Especially now during Passover, it is time we remember our own liberation,” Rabbi Sarah Bassin, associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, told the Journal, as she was locking arms with Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg, before their arrest.

Approximately 200 members of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and other faith-based social organizations turned out.

Among those arrested were Bassin, Goldberg, Cohen; Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus at Hillel at UCLA; and Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC.

Goldberg said the purpose of blocking the entrance to the detention center was to prevent ICE vehicles from doing roundups.

“We’re making sure that ICE vans don’t have the ability to leave and round people up and deport them during this week of Passover,” she said.

Locking arms with Shakeel Syed, executive director at Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, Seidler-Feller said lessons gleaned from Passover obligate him to stand up for undocumented immigrants.

“At Passover we understand we are all strangers and citizens of the world together,” he said.

Syed, who is Muslim, echoed the importance of interfaith unity in the face of injustice.

“Today, I am a full human being standing in solidarity with all my Jewish brothers and sisters,” he said.

From left: Rabbi Chaim Siedler-Feller, Shaklee Syed and Rabbi Jonathan Klein lock arms outside the Metropolitan Detention Center. Photo by Ryan Torok

From left: Rabbi Chaim Siedler-Feller, Shaklee Syed and Rabbi Jonathan Klein lock arms outside the Metropolitan Detention Center. Photo by Ryan Torok

 

Police charged those arrested with willfully disobeying a police officer.

Bassin said she was released shortly after her arrest. The police treated her professionally, she said, adding that the charge is equivalent to a traffic violation.

The event kicked off with people congregating in the historic La Placita Church near Olvera Street, where Cohen expressed his frustration with the Donald Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants.

“We are here to say this as loud as we can,” Cohen said, addressing packed pews inside the church. “We will not abide by this anymore.”

As they proceeded, protestors stopped at the Federal Building, which conducts immigration processing, at 300 N. Los Angeles St., and chanted, “Not one more deportation!” Officials from the Department of Homeland Security stood at the entrance to the building.

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills addressed protestors during an action expressing opposition to the treatment of undocumented citizens. Photo by Ryan Torok

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills addressed protestors during an action expressing opposition to the treatment of undocumented citizens. Photo by Ryan Torok

 

Two officers, who declined to be identified, said they did not know beforehand the interfaith group would be showing up.

“Passover is the ultimate Jewish story of liberation,” David Bocarsly, a 26-year-old USC graduate student in public policy, said as the group marched on to the MDC. “The reason we retell is we don’t forget. This is a holiday not just for Jews but for all people.

“Passover is the story of God’s social justice work,” Bocarsly added. He, too, was arrested.

The group arrived outside the detention center just after 11 a.m. and formed a circle around a seder table set up in the middle of the closed-down street. Matzo, grape juice and bitter herbs sat on the table.

Holding up a piece of broken matzo, Seidler-Feller said it symbolized families broken apart by the country’s immigration policy.

Clergy, community members and others formed a circle in the middle of Aliso street outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in protest of the treatment of undocumented citizens. Photo by Ryan Torok

Clergy, community members and others formed a circle in the middle of Aliso street outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in protest of the treatment of undocumented citizens. Photo by Ryan Torok

 

“This is a broken matzo,” he said. “It’s broken families, broken hearts, broken people.”

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE, held up bitter herbs “to call out the bitterness of ICE sweeps, of fathers detained in front of their children, of the bitterness of imprisonment for no crime,” he said.

Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, held up a cup of grape juice.

“We set aside a cup for Elijah, and open the door to announce the coming of redemption,” Geller said. “We fill this cup from our own cups to remind us that bringing to redemption to our world is up to us all.” She was not arrested.

Rabbi Danny Mehlman, spiritual leader of Ner Tamid of Downey and a chaplain at North Kern State Prison, stood in the group watching the seder. He was born in Argentina and lived in Israel for 13 years before coming to the United States with the American-born wife he’d recently married. He said when he became a citizen, the pathway to citizenship was much easier. This was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he acknowledged, but he said he wanted to see a return to a more sensible naturalization process for the undocumented.

“There hasn’t been a change in immigration law, which is necessary,” he said, wearing a tie that was decorated like a matzo, “the tie of affliction,” said Mehlman, who did not partake in any civil disobedience because of his role as a prison chaplain.

Mehlman said he hoped the the event raised awareness about the challenges facing the undocumented community.

“One of the points of the seder is to increase awareness,” he said. “Indifference is the enemy of awareness, of action, and that’s what’s needed.”

Reform rabbis nudge ICE on deportations

Reform rabbis are contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in an attempt to delay the deportation of undocumented workers.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis partnered with immigration advocacy organizations to ask the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to exercise discretion when deciding whether or not to deport anyone, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

While “deportation is an important part of border enforcement, we have learned that too many innocent people are caught in the system,” said Rabbi Peter Berg of Atlanta. “The good news is that ICE legally has the right to use discretion about whom to deport and actually will exercise that discretion – if they hear from enough people.”

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more than 60 Reform rabbis called or wrote on behalf of Luis Lopez-Acabal, who is facing deportation back to Guatemala following his involvement in a traffic accident.

Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz., met Lopez at the church where he has taken sanctuary. If deported, Lopez would have to leave behind his wife, a legal resident of the United States, and two young children including one with autism.

“We are called as a faith community to stand against injustice,” Linder said, according to the Religious Action Center release. “The family is a sacred institution that is being violated by tragic separation throughout the country, while desperately needed immigration reform is stalled on Capitol Hill. These families should not continue to be victims due to a lack of political resolve.”

Jewish values at heart of immigration reform

Last May, an unusual delegation arrived at the State Capitol building in Sacramento: a contingent of some 50 Reform Jews, clergy and lay leaders, hailing from congregations across California. They had come to campaign for the Trust Act, a bill designed to limit deportations of undocumented immigrants in the state. A few months after their visit, Gov. Jerry Brown would sign the Trust Act into law as part of a sweeping October push for immigration reform. But that wasn’t assured at the time. 

The bill had just passed through the California Assembly and was primed for review by the State Senate during the summer. Questions swirled: Were enough senators on board to vote in its favor? Was the language strong enough? Brown had vetoed a previous version of the Trust Act in 2012 — was this edition something he would sign?

Rabbi Larry Raphael, of Congregation Sherith Israel, and several other San Francisco rabbis stood in a corridor discussing these concerns with an aide to state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), when an assemblyman walked by. He noticed the kippot worn by a few in the group and caught the drift of their conversation. “You’re here about the Trust Act?” the assemblyman asked. The clergy confirmed. 

“Is immigration a Jewish issue?” he pressed skeptically.

Raphael answered, “We believe it is.” 

It was a moment of affirmation in a historic campaign that united more than 1,000 Reform Jews throughout California in political advocacy for the better part of 2013. The Jewish campaign for the Trust Act coalesced under the banner of Reform CA, a new statewide initiative of the Reform movement aiming to reinvigorate social justice in synagogues and connect those small-scale pockets of energy to spur large-scale political change. The initiative’s first year was marked by trial and error, perseverance and ultimate triumph — along with unprecedented collaboration between congregations and clergy on what some might consider an unlikely Jewish cause.

[Related: Rabbi Stephanie Kolin finds her strength in superheroes]

The Trust Act, which took effect  Jan. 1, prohibits local law enforcement from holding undocumented immigrants for deportation in California unless they have committed a serious felony. Previously, those who had committed minor offenses could be detained for deportation, leading to a strained relationship with authorities in immigrant communities and the separation of parents from children with legal status.

“This wasn’t an obvious issue,” said Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, co-director of Just Congregations, the community-organizing arm of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and lead organizer of Reform CA. “But we share this state. We will partner with our brothers and sisters across lines of race, class and faith to address the pain that we all share when this system is so broken.”

The seeds for this partnership were planted when Kolin moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to open the West Coast office of Just Congregations. She began working with synagogues across the Southland to help them kick-start social action programs, tackling local issues of injustice on a grass-roots level. But she found that many Southern California rabbis had an appetite to make bigger change than they could muster individually. And she started to understand the power of a crucial idea: “Together,” she said, “we are more powerful than we are when we stand alone.”

“It started with rabbis, and it started in Los Angeles, but it ends with neither one of just those,” Kolin said. 

Islands in an ocean

For some time, Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue had sensed a jarring disconnect in the local Reform Jewish landscape: Congregations a stone’s throw from one another felt like islands in an ocean, related yet distant. “Everyone in the state of California felt a part of the movement but at times didn’t necessarily feel connected to other Reform Jews outside their congregation,” Simonds said. 

When Kolin arrived in Los Angeles, she found that rabbis were feeling isolated and craving closer relationships. At the same time, many were frustrated by the stagnant political climate and yearned to use their pulpits to battle social ills. But oftentimes they couldn’t follow through on ambitious political agendas because they didn’t have the clout.

“So we proposed: What if the Reform movement learned to act even more like a movement? What if we could move together on something?” Kolin said. “We started asking one another the question, ‘What is the California that you dream of?’ That question allowed us to begin to imagine what was possible.”

Rabbis began meeting with one another and with their congregants to discuss their deepest worries and desires. They talked about public education, health care, gun violence, the widening gap between rich and poor; the list of concerns was vast. Could the Reform movement consolidate its momentum to drive statewide change?

Maybe, the rabbis felt — but it would require a committed base of participants and a sound political strategy. The nascent Reform CA leadership team met with academics, researchers, legal experts and coalition leaders to find out what was percolating on the state’s legislative docket. “We didn’t want to just yell into the night. We wanted to be strategic about where we participated, so that we could actually have impact,” Kolin said. “We determined we wanted to take on one thing and do it well.”

The Trust Act came up in one of the team’s research meetings and struck a chord. Under a federal program, Secure Communities, authorities are required to check the immigration status of anyone arrested and detain those in the United States illegally so Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can begin deportation proceedings. But the program has led to the deportation of thousands of undocumented immigrants for minor crimes — such as selling food without a license — and fosters distrust of authorities that has prevented victims and witnesses of crimes from contacting the police, immigrant advocates say. “It was a huge barrier to community policing,” said Jennifer Kaufman, chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), who added that the program “forced people into the shadows.”

Reform CA organizers knew immigration reform had become a topic of heated national conversation. But they wondered whether California Jews would care about the 3 million undocumented immigrants in their home state. To find out, rabbis took a personal approach: They asked congregants to share the immigration stories of their own parents and grandparents. 

“There were stories of people being here illegally, not knowing the language, struggling to find work, to feel accepted,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Leo Baeck Temple. “It opened up our hearts to the experience of our immigrant sisters and brothers now. We’ve been strangers in a strange land. We’ve been immigrants throughout our history.”

For some rabbis and congregants, the issue was more immediate. Bruce Corwin, chairman and CEO of Metropolitan Theatres Corp. and a member of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, said he has had employees rounded up and deported during ICE raids. “They’re just scared to death,” Corwin said. “A lot of parents have been separated from their families. It’s a terrible thing that happens in this country.” 

At Temple Israel in Stockton, a father of four children had to travel back to Mexico for six months while navigating the U.S. immigration system. “It wasn’t a concept for me anymore,” said Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff. “It was a family in my congregation.”

It was official: In its first year, Reform CA would take on the Trust Act.

‘We have to engage in the outside world’

Reform CA represents the first partnership between three major social justice branches of the Reform movement: the URJ’s Just Congregations, the Religious Action Center (RAC) in Washington, D.C., and the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties Committee. But Reform Judaism has long emphasized tikkun olam as a central pillar of observance. And in an era of waning synagogue participation, social justice could be a way to reconnect, Jewish leaders say. 

“Polls show that for American Jews, especially younger Jews, social justice is a key organizing principle of Jewish identity,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the RAC. 

Community organizing, too, is a model that seems to fit the times, Kolin believes. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for the country,” she said. “We don’t have time for divisiveness and fear and isolation — Jews over here and Christians over here and Muslims over there. If we don’t figure out how to act together across those lines of difference, I think there’s a real fear about the direction our country will take.”

Kolin often recalls a text in the Shulchan Arukh that prohibits Jews from praying in sanctuaries without windows. “We can cast our eyes upward in prayer, but not without casting our eyes outward,” she said. “We have to engage in the outside world.” 

For Reform CA, that directive started with letters. Participating rabbis and lay leaders wrote to California Assembly members, senators and Brown last spring, asking them all to support the Trust Act. Rabbi Richard Levy, director of spiritual growth at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and rabbi of the campus synagogue, led the creation of a Passover Seder supplement that drew parallels between the Israelites’ status as immigrants in Egypt and the status of immigrants to the United States. Families across California hosted “immigration Seders” in 2013; at the conclusion, they went online and signed letters to legislators in support of the bill. 

That wasn’t the only way organizers tied the campaign to Jewish ritual. Levy worked with CLUE-LA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), an interfaith organization focused on economic justice, to devise a text study for Shavuot on the Book of Ruth (Ruth was an immigrant from Moab). On Tisha B’Av, a holiday of typically low attendance in Reform congregations, about 100 members from 10 Los Angeles synagogues gathered at Leo Baeck’s outdoor chapel to hear a teaching on how the destruction of the Temple mirrors the destruction of what is sacred to immigrants today. HUC-JIR professor Rabbi Lewis Barth challenged attendees to ponder: If they — of influence and sway — don’t access justice for their community, how can those on the fringes of society do so?

Outside the religious realm, Reform CA leaders also got a crash course on the policy end of passing a bill. Kolin and others worked closely with a coalition of advocacy groups, including Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and PICO California to fine-tune the legislation’s language and drum up support among members of the state Assembly and Senate. “We were the Reform Jews at the table,” Kolin said — the only Jewish group working on the issue. “We were very appreciative of how open they were to us.”

Coalition partners said the feeling was mutual. “It was like a breath of fresh air when they came in,” said Angela Chan, senior staff attorney at Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, which co-sponsored the Trust Act for the past three years. “Reform CA really gave fresh energy to the work and a fresh perspective, too. It was very easy to work with them because of their selflessness, their humility and this open-heart, caring tone.  ‘How can we help?’ is the question I kept getting,” Chan said.

In May, the answer turned out to be meeting lawmakers face-to-face. A group of about 50 rabbis and lay leaders convened in Sacramento the morning of May 23 to thank state Assembly members for voting for the Trust Act and to ask state senators to do the same. “What happened over the next eight hours was magical,” Simonds said.

First, they reviewed key talking points of the Trust Act. They hatched a strategy to canvass as many legislators as possible. And they heard the story of a woman who was living in the United States legally, yet was still caught up in the immigration web and held for deportation for months. Then the delegation arrived at the Capitol steps. But before they went inside, they grounded their journey in Judaism: They said a prayer. “Help us to raise our voices for those without a voice,” Gwasdoff recited, in a prayer he composed for the occasion. “Grant us the strength to change our government, our policies, our ways and ourselves.”

That day, the group met with state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who had introduced the Trust Act, and staff aides of senators and the governor. They also secured a meeting with California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg — a Reform Jew himself — on the Senate floor. 

“It did not surprise me that Reform rabbis would engage in political activism — it made me very happy,” said Steinberg, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. “The meeting helped focus me. They helped me really engage on some of those nuances [of the Trust Act] that were the subject of negotiation with the governor’s office. They were very impressive.”

But other lawmakers did express surprise — and that was a good thing, the group believes. “It was powerful for legislators and their staff to see that the Reform movement of Judaism was there lobbying for the Trust Act,” Timoner said. “We didn’t just ‘kind of’ care.’ We cared enough to fly up to Sacramento and spend a day lobbying. I think we had a big impact because we were unlikely advocates.”

10 days of calling during 10 Days of Awe

The High Holy Days came early last year, bringing with them the largest audience Jewish clergy have access to all year. Reform CA leaders seized on the moment — the ritual spotlight on t’shuvah, the turning to God and returning to priorities — for one final push to drive the Trust Act message home.

Just before the holidays, the bill passed through the Senate. By Rosh Hashanah, it was on the governor’s desk, awaiting a signature or veto.

During the High Holy Days, dozens of rabbis across the state preached about immigration reform in their sermons, asking congregants to call the governor’s office to urge him to sign the bill. Simonds reminded University Synagogue’s young professionals’ group that Jews have felt the hand of oppression, and they now had the power to transform it into a hand of welcome. A number of congregants took out their phones right there and wrote notes to call Brown’s office, he said.

The campaign orchestrated 10 days of calling during the 10 Days of Awe. At times, the call volume was so high that congregants complained they couldn’t get through. Kolin ran interference with the rabbis. “I was like, ‘Go back and tell your people it’s because you’re crushing the system! Keep trying!’ ” she recalled. “Frustration gave way to hope and the feeling that we were really doing something.”

Statewide, the campaign delivered more than 1,000 phone calls to Brown’s office between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hundreds came from Los Angeles alone. 

At Leo Baeck, Rabbi Ken Chasen’s preaching led to another unexpected windfall. The day after Rosh Hashanah, an influential congregant set up a personal phone call between Chasen and the governor. Chasen told Brown that during the High Holy Days, when sermons usually take on worldly issues, Reform rabbis across California were making immigration their focus. “They weren’t mobilizing around speaking about Israel, or Iran,” Chasen said. “What was speaking to them was this issue of immigration within our state. This issue was deeply embedded within the hearts and souls of Jewish Californians.”

Brown told Chasen he hadn’t realized immigration was so important to Jewish constituents and thanked him for the call.

“When you start on a campaign of this sort, you just don’t know which is the moment that might lead to the greatest amount of access, the greatest amount of power, the greatest amount of influence,” Chasen said. “The narrative that unfolded was one that we could never have predicted.”

On Oct. 5, a day on which activists staged immigration rallies across the United States, Brown signed the Trust Act. “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said at the time. “I’m not waiting.”

Kolin woke up that morning to an e-mail from the coalition: “It was just signed and it will be public in three minutes.” 

“And I cried,” she recalled. “And then we got the word out on Facebook.”

The victory, which fell on Shabbat, felt like “a taste of redemption,” Kolin said. It also set an example of successful community organizing that other Jewish sectors can mimic, officials believe. 

“Reform CA has set a really inspiring model for a lot of our other state efforts around the country,” said Saperstein, of the RAC, which has mobilized around 500 congregations nationally to advocate for immigration reform. “We are so proud of the extraordinary effort these rabbis made. That our movement played an important role is a badge of honor and a source of pride for us, and an inspiration to other states as far as what they can achieve.” 

“This effort has really brought us together across our institutions,” Timoner added. “We’re a team now — it’s very powerful.”

But Kolin and the others didn’t rest on their laurels for long. They’ve already begun work on Reform CA’s next campaign. At the URJ Biennial in San Diego last December, they asked congregants and rabbis to return to the question, “What is the California you dream of?” and start the process again. 

“Let’s go, go, go,” Kolin said. “There is so much more work to do. They have the appetite and the hunger — let’s see what we can build.”