The untold story of DACA’s Israeli recipients

Picture in your mind a “Dreamer,” an immigrant brought to the United States as a child and now living without documentation in this country. Chances are you’re not picturing an Israeli. But here in Los Angeles, young undocumented Jews from Israel are among those facing the looming threat of deportation.

President Donald Trump’s administration recently rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, with a six-month delay to provide time for Congress to plan a path for DACA recipients to gain permanent legal status. Whether that pronouncement sticks remains unclear. 

After a meeting with Democratic leaders and a swirl of messages out of the White House, some of them contradictory, Trump said on Sept. 14 he supports legislation to protect the Dreamers, and further consideration of a wall on the southern border would be done separately.

The policy was created during President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012 as a temporary reprieve to shield young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Trump’s Sept. 5 announcement has been roundly criticized by Democrats, many Republicans and Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jewish organizations.

There are an estimated 800,000 DACA recipients, the vast majority of them Latino, with 79 percent coming from Mexico. More than a quarter of the total live in California. At a Sept. 10 rally, hundreds of pro-immigration demonstrators gathered in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, many holding signs written in Spanish and waving Mexican flags.

Israel isn’t among the two dozen countries where most DACA recipients originate. But for various reasons — often having to do with fraudulent legal advice given to their parents — these young Jews are caught in a legal limbo, unable to receive federal student aid or travel outside the country.

While their status is identical to that of other Dreamers, they are different in subtle ways, as their individual stories suggest. For example, because the number of Latinos facing deportation is so much larger, they tend to feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and anxieties with one another.

Not so for Jewish Dreamers. For many, their status is an embarrassing stigma, something they would just as soon hide from even their closest friends. 

On the other hand, because Jews are often lighter-skinned than Latinos, they tend not to be subjected to the stares and derision from citizens who support the administration’s decision to eliminate DACA protections.

Furthermore, Jewish Dreamers tend to be better off financially than those from other countries, a distinction that provides securities — even if temporary — that others might not have.

In the end, however, all Dreamers are equal in the eyes of a government policy that would remove them unless a change is forthcoming from a Congress that is deeply divided on immigration issues.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), one of more than a dozen Jewish House members, is among those who favor continuing protections for all Dreamers, including those from Israel.

“The history of the Jewish people is characterized by migration in search of safety and a better future, and I believe our own experience teaches us to empathize with the Dreamers, although relatively few are Jewish or came here from places like Israel,” he said in an email to the Journal. “The administration would treat these young people as unwanted guests in the only country they know. But I view Dreamers as part of the fabric of our nation and believe Congress must act to ensure these young people can continue to live and work in the United States without fear.”

Below are stories of a few undocumented Israeli immigrants. They agreed to share details of their lives with the Journal under the condition that their last names not be used, and in some cases, that their first names be changed to protect their identities. Although the specifics of their cases differ, they share a feeling of being Americans first and foremost, and face an uncertain future.

‘I don’t even remember what Israel looks like’

Bar, a 16-year-old high school junior in the San Fernando Valley, has known for her entire life that she was undocumented.

“It did suck not to be able to go to Israel and visit when all my friends would go,” she said. “All my family is in Israel.”

A resident of Sherman Oaks, her parents arrived on a tourist visa in 2001, when she was 6 months old. Their visas expired a year after they arrived.

“We were hoping we could fix everything before becoming illegal. We had other people giving us suggestions and it was wrong … bad advice, and we didn’t have the money at that point to fix it,” her father, Ron, said.

Ron ran a clothing factory in downtown Los Angeles and insisted on manufacturing in the U.S. but had to shutter the facility because of the high cost of labor.

“We’re paying all the debts that society is asking to pay, and we’re getting zero benefit out of it,” he said.

“I’m from L.A. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. I don’t even remember what Israel looks like.” — Bar

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes but can’t collect benefits. He now runs a printing and packaging company that outsources to Mexico and China.

Bar’s mother, Karen, works for a catering business, serving and cooking food for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other big events.

Bar joined the DACA program late last year. Some of her friends know she’s undocumented and hope one day she’ll be able to join them on trips to Israel and Mexico. She took a driver education course and hopes to get a license soon but might need to apply for an AB 60 license, available for California residents regardless of immigration status, if her DACA status expires.

She’s been a member of the Tzofim movement (Israel’s scouts program) since seventh grade. Her younger sister and brother are scouts, too. They were born in the U.S. and are citizens.

Bar counsels younger kids in Tzofim. “They all tell me before summer starts, ‘We’re going to Israel,’ and I ask them how is that. Even the youngest kids tell me about their experiences in Israel and their family. I’m very excited to be able to go,” she said.

Bar works for a birthday party business where she paints little kids’ faces, dances with them and dresses up as characters from the popular Israeli children‘s show “Yuval Hamebulbal,” a dinosaur and a fire-fighting dog. After she graduates from high school, she expects to go to community college and transfer to a four-year university to study business and fashion design.

If the DACA program is canceled, putting her at risk of deportation, she said it would be “really, really upsetting.”

“I’m from L.A. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. I don’t even remember what Israel looks like,” she said.

‘This affects kids who are pretty much American in every way’

Eli grew up in Beverly Hills and describes himself as “a typical Persian-Jewish kid” in all ways but one: He’s in the country illegally. He was born in Tel Aviv and came here in 1991, when he was 8 years old. His parents overstayed their visa when their green card application was denied.

He earned a degree from UCLA, paying his tuition out of his own pocket, and hoped to go to law school but knew he wouldn’t be allowed to practice. He struggled for years with low-paying jobs.

“A soon as I got my DACA [status] in December 2013, three months later I got hired by a Fortune 500 company,” he said. “I knew I had the ability all along but I couldn’t prove it, because I didn’t have access to a real job.”

Now in his mid-30s, he owns his own business, offering “professional services” to corporate clients.

Outside of a small group of friends and his girlfriend, nobody knows about his status.

“I don’t want to jeopardize my business or do anything that can cause harm to that. In the Persian-Jewish community people talk, and I don’t want that information out,” he said.

Eli is a fitness enthusiast, spending hours a day at the gym training in Brazilian jiu jitsu. He considers himself a hard worker, a self-made entrepreneur, and can’t understand why people wouldn’t want him to be a citizen. After all, he said, he had no say in his parents’ decision to come to the U.S. and overstay their visa.

“You can’t blame somebody who didn’t commit the crime,” he said. “If you pull somebody over and their grandson is in the backseat, you don’t give the grandson in the backseat a ticket.”

He knows plenty of Iranian-American Jews who support Trump, and he doesn’t fault them for it.

“None of them go to KKK or neo-Nazi rallies or anti-immigration rallies. They’re pro-Trump mostly because of his pro-Israel stance, and they make good money and want tax breaks,” he said.

But he said he thinks a lot of them do have a racial bias.

“They look down on Mexican immigrants as low-skilled labor. They mow their lawn and garden their backyard and take care of their kids. … A lot of them probably think we should send them back to Mexico. They don’t understand this affects kids who are pretty much American in every way other than the fact that they don’t have their citizenship here, don’t have their green card.”

‘I’ll take my American education and I’ll go somewhere else’

Rebecca’s parents came to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. They planned to return to Israel after their B-2 tourist visa expired.

“When we got here, we started to feel like we wanted to stay here,” she said. They hired a lawyer who “ended up being a crook,” and their visa expired, she said.

Now 23, Rebecca has spent roughly half her life in the United States.

“My heart is in two different places. It’s hard every day to make the choice to be here. And it’s still a choice, despite all the inconveniences of being undocumented,” she said.

When she gained DACA status in 2012, “everything really changed.” The California Dream Act enabled her to receive state financial aid at UCLA, where she graduated with a double major in anthropology and Arabic.

While at UCLA, she participated in UndocuBruins, a research grant program for undocumented students and received funding to work with a South L.A. nonprofit that trains previously incarcerated people to work on urban farms in “food deserts.”

After she “decided that urban farming is really cool,” Rebecca completed a three-month fellowship at a Jewish community farm in Berkeley called Urban Adamah. Much like a kibbutz, the fellows live and farm together. This summer she worked as a garden educator at a Jewish summer camp in northern California and is now working with other UCLA grads at a startup nonprofit called COMPASS for Youth, which provides counseling for at-risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles.

Her undocumented status has inspired her to help others.

“I feel really blessed for that, because it’s opened my eyes and made me empathetic toward the stories of so many people that I wouldn’t have been able to empathize with beforehand,” she said.

“A lot of doors have been closed on me, and I had to push through a lot of doors. I got a lot of help [and] a lot of community support. … I’m grateful.”— Rebecca

While at UCLA, she was active at Hillel and in the Jewish community, but she had to navigate her place among the mostly Latino undocumented students and the feeling of guilt that accompanies a recognition of privilege.

“Ironically, my dad is also a construction worker, just like the dads of many of the undocumented folks that I know … [but] my dad’s been able to be more successful because he has resources, and he’s not Mexican, so he’s not looked at in a particular way. I look like a white person, so I don’t experience the sort of racist reality that comes with being undocumented in America.”

Rebecca’s mother is a self-published writer of poetry in Hebrew and English.

“A lot of [the poems] are about being away from home and being separated from her family. Her dad passed away while we were here, a few years into being here. So she wasn’t able to see him for the few last years of his life, and then not at his death, not at his funeral, and not now, many years later,” she said.

Rebecca was afraid of deportation, but becoming a DACA recipient “has given me breathing room,” she said. She’d rather move to Israel on her own terms than be deported, but hopes to stay here. She’s trying to make the world a better place in her own way.

“If America doesn’t want that, too bad,” she said. “I’ll take my American education and I’ll go somewhere else.”

Despite the fear that comes with being undocumented, “the immigrant experience is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said.

“I was totally uprooted and I had to cope, and assimilated to something that was 100 percent foreign to me. And that was really hard,” she added. “A lot of doors have been closed on me, and I had to push through a lot of doors. I got a lot of help [and] a lot of community support. … I’m grateful.”

‘The dreams come true here’

In the heart of affluent Beverly Hills, 17-year-old Jason harbors a secret. His family came from Israel when he was 5, and someone posing as a lawyer botched their citizenship applications and disappeared. Their work permits expired, and now Jason, his parents, and his younger brother live in the shadows.

His friends don’t know. Neither did his girlfriend, whom he considered marrying in order to gain a path to legal status. His parents actually pressured him to propose even though he knew “she would freak out, like, big time” if she found out he was undocumented.

Jason became a DACA recipient in 2015.

“I had no idea what it was,” he said. In fact, until that point, his parents hadn’t told him or his younger brother about their immigration status.

“They didn’t know we were illegal because we didn’t want them to talk to their friends,” his father, Avi, said. “Only when the DACA program came out, after talking to Neil [Sheff, their immigration lawyer], only then we told the kids.”

Jason plays guitar and plans to enroll in a music program after graduating from Beverly Hills High School. But his immigration status has complicated his plans.

“I do want to travel at some point, and if I’m not documented I can’t do that,” he said.

Returning to Israel is not an option, his parents say.

“I have nothing to do in Israel,” his mother, Ravital, said. “It’s hard to live there. Here, it’s an easier life. The dreams come true here.”

Daniel, their 13-year-old son, wants to be an actor. Because he’s too young to gain DACA status, he can’t get a work permit and audition for roles.

“Now that [Trump] canceled it, it’s a lot harder. It’s impossible, unless I get married to an American girl,” Daniel said with a laugh.

Ravital owns a skin care company, and Avi works in software development. “We do everything by the book, and we find a way to pay taxes on time,” Ravital said.

“We probably pay more taxes than Trump,” Avi added.

Many of their Israeli and Orthodox Jewish friends are Trump supporters, and they fear social alienation if their immigration status is discovered. “Before you called, we closed all the windows around the house,” Avi admitted. “The stigma of people who are illegal here is very bad.”

‘Remember the stranger and the foreigner in your land’

There’s a disconnect between Jews and undocumented immigrants, says Beverly Hills immigration attorney Neil Sheff, who speaks Hebrew and Spanish fluently. About half of his clients are Israeli, and he hears a lot of rhetoric against immigration reform from his fellow Jews, even those born in other countries.

“Their responses are usually, ‘We came here the legal way.’ When many of the Jewish immigrants came here, the immigration laws were so relaxed and the process was so much easier, everyone could come here the legal way,” he said.

“Their plight isn’t really acknowledged by the greater Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community.” – Neil Sheff

Sheff believes there are many Israelis living in L.A. without documentation, as well as Jews from South Africa, Russia and an increasing number from France, looking to escape their country’s rising tide of anti-Semitism.

“Their plight isn’t really acknowledged by the greater Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community,” which supports Trump because they consider him to be pro-Israel, Sheff said.

The Torah extolls Jews 36 times to treat strangers well, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

“It’s part and parcel of who we are as Jews to remember the stranger and the foreigner in your land,” Sheff said. “That should translate immediately to empathy for the immigrants here, whether they are immigrants who have been here for generations or just arrived.”

Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a campaign rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Jan. 26, 2016. Photo b yBrian Snyder/Reuters

Arpaio pardon is a travesty of justice

Since biblical times, reverence for the rule of law has fueled our community. When Moses was given the law on Mount Sinai and then presented it to our ancestors, a great tradition was born, one from which a profound adherence to justice has never wavered. President Donald J. Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio breaks from the basic tenets of democracy and the premise and promise of our nation’s history.

The president, of course, has the constitutional authority to issue such a pardon. But we argue that he cannot do so with moral impunity, and his actions must not be met with silence — again — on the part of Jewish communal institutions, which too frequently have chosen fiscal discretion over ethical valor.

This pardon, issued on the eve of a massive natural and human catastrophe, is but the latest in a series of assaults on civil liberties, civil rights and a free press. It is but another example of the president’s evident disregard for the rule of law and his willingness to reward political friends despite their history of attacks on our constitutional protections. Accordingly, when a symbol of racism is honored by this administration, which seems so intent on dividing rather than uniting our country, we raise our voices in protest, in the name of a Jewish community that is increasingly vocal in its criticism of this administration.

What Arpaio did was to engage in evil and anarchy. He used his position of authority as sheriff toward unconstitutional, racially discriminatory ends. The Phoenix New Times reported that, for the past two decades, many judges have criticized Arpaio’s practices as being “unconstitutional and abusive” and in violation of a range of antidiscrimination laws.   Arpaio’s racial preferences happened to disfavor Latinos who, irrespective of whether they were suspected of committing a crime, were detained in what Arpaio called “concentration camps.” Arpaio’s sinister conduct and the president’s sanctioning of that conduct erode the very foundation of our Constitution.

This travesty of justice and its implications for our democracy should send shivers up and down the spine of every American Jew. 

This is not a subtle point. The president of the United States blessed a sheriff’s refusal to accept that the Constitution required him to keep his racial prejudices and categorizations at bay and, further, blessed that sheriff’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of a court order. A sheriff endangered and harmed the very people he was entrusted to protect, and this year he was found guilty of contempt of court. And for this, Trump called Arpaio “a great American patriot” and rewarded him with a presidential pardon. Republicans and Democrats alike certainly can agree that a person in a position of authority who, as Arpaio has done, degrades and humiliates inmates, places inmates in subhuman conditions of extreme heat and extreme cold without adequate supplies of water and food, and is racially biased as he executes his job, is anything but a patriot. Alas, he is a criminal. And by pardoning such a criminal, the president has abused his power, thereby promoting division, bigotry and cronyism.

This travesty of justice and its implications for our democracy should send shivers up and down the spine of every American Jew. 

In addition, this pardon sets a dangerous precedent for other reasons. It could frustrate the investigations of the president and his administration that are now underway, if witnesses and persons of interest believe they need not cooperate because the president could absolve them of criminal culpability by pardoning them. It could keep the American people from knowing the extent of possible abuses of power and obstructions of justice. Although James Madison wrote that abuse of the authority to pardon would be grounds for impeachment, we fear the opposite — that this president could use it to preserve himself in office.

It must offend our core values as Americans and as Jews that this president has evidently bartered fundamental constitutional rights and protections for personal political gain.

The pardon Trump issued — late on a Friday afternoon as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas — usurps a system that protects all of us. Left unprotested and unchecked, this pardon threatens to wash away our history, to undermine our democracy, to upend due process and to erode the rule of law.  And, as Jews, this disregard of the rule of law should bear special meaning.

The Hebrew prophets warned against the absolute rule and rapacity of kings. The people ignored them in the name of political convenience, and suffered the consequences. We refuse to ignore this travesty of a pardon, which is no less than an attack on justice itself.

JANICE KAMENIR-REZNIK is co-chair of Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ); and MEL LEVINE, a former congressman, and ZEV YAROSLAVSKY, a former Los Angeles County supervisor, are members of the executive committee of JUDJ, a grass-roots movement of citizens dedicated to the principles of Torah, justice and democracy.

White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller discusses immigration policy at the daily press briefing at the White House on Aug. 2. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

White House aide Stephen Miller doesn’t think the Statue of Liberty has much to do with immigration

Isabel Belarsky arrived in New York in 1930 fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Russia. Eighty-one years later, she recalled what it was like, as an immigrant, to see the Statue of Liberty as her ship approached New York Harbor.

“It was a wonderful sight,” she told CNN in 2011.
Sorry, Isabel: If you think Lady Liberty was welcoming immigrants like you, the Trump administration thinks you may have have misinterpreted her message.
Explaining President Trump’s immigration policies Wednesday, White House aide Stephen Miller told reporters that the famous pro-immigration poem associated with the Statue of Liberty “doesn’t matter” since it was attached to the site years after the statue was erected.

The poem, “The New Colossus,” was written by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in 1883, eight years after construction began on the statue and three years before its dedication. It includes lines long associated with America’s embrace of immigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

When CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Miller whether a new immigration bill favoring English-speaking applicants and vetting potential immigrants according to their skill sets is “keeping with American tradition” and the spirit of the Lazarus poem, Miller said that the poem doesn’t matter since it was “added later” to the statue.

“I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty and lighting in the world; it’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” Miller argued. “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the Statue of Liberty.”

Although not an immigrant herself, Lazarus, the daughter of a family that traced its roots to America’s first Portuguese Jewish settlers, wrote the poem about the statue and in response to what her biographer, Esther Schor, called the “pain of the world’s exiles.” Although a plaque inscribed with the poem wasn’t placed at the site until 1903 — six years after Lazarus’ death at age 38 — its message and the statue’s orientation near what would become, starting in 1892, the nation’s busiest entry point for new immigrants became inseparable.

“The Statue of Liberty was not conceived and sculpted as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became so as immigrant ships passed under the torch and the shining face, heading toward Ellis Island,” wrote John T. Cunningham in a history of nearby Ellis Island. “However, it was [Lazarus’s poem] that permanently stamped on Miss Liberty the role of unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were among the presidents who gave pro-immigration speeches at the base of the statue.

Twitter wasn’t kind to Miller’s appraisal of the poem. “WHAT?!! advisor Stephen Miller says Emma Lazarus poem on Statue of Liberty ‘meaningless.’ Stephen, you are a Statue of Arrogance,” tweeted the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.

Peter Sagal — host of the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” — seemed flabbergasted by Miller’s assertion (which, to be fair, is technically true).

And some termed it ironic that Miller’s own great-grandfather, Sam Glosser, immigrated to America from his native Belarus.

And if the statue is no longer what Lazarus called the “Mother of Exiles,” someone may want to notify the National Park Service: Its web site refers to Lady Liberty as “The Immigrant’s Statue.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visits the Journal office for a wide-ranging interview. Photos by Lynn Pelkey

Mayor Garcetti on the future of Los Angeles, his faith and Trump

No one can escape the challenges of Los Angeles — not even the mayor.

As voters prepare to take a stand on ballot initiatives that aim to impact homelessness, development and, yes, L.A.’s infamous traffic, no one can say Mayor Eric Garcetti can’t relate. Just last week, he found himself ensnarled in gridlock, 20 minutes late for an interview at the Journal’s Koreatown office.

In the midst of a re-election campaign, Garcetti — the city’s first elected Jewish mayor — said he’s looking at the long-term. So while he’s confident that Los Angeles is moving in the right direction, he promised no quick fixes.

“I never approached my first term as, you know, I have four years to change this city,” he said in a freewheeling interview that covered topics as varied as city services to the city’s response to President Donald Trump’s executive orders to his own spiritual journey. “I think from the beginning, I’ve approached this job as an Angeleno, a lifelong Angeleno. And I kind of looked at the next decade to 50 years as the time horizon I wanted to influence. So I think my second term is very much similar to the first term, about being able to reach for great opportunities and address pressing challenges.”

Garcetti, who faces seven challengers in this election, talked about his role in raising the minimum wage, and putting the heft of City Hall behind last November’s successful ballot initiatives to fund transportation and homeless efforts to the tune of billions of dollars. Now he is campaigning for Los Angeles County Measure H on the March 7 ballot, which would raise the sales tax by 0.25 percent to provide drug and mental illness rehabilitation and prevention programs for the homeless. He’s also come out against Measure S, the initiative that aims to reform land use, saying it would negatively impact affordable housing in the city.

The mayor — son of a Jewish mother and a father of Mexican and Italian heritage, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti — had plenty to say about his increased spirituality, as well, and how it’s informed his response to recent events on a national level. (Garcetti has pledged to fight Trump’s effort to deport undocumented immigrants, who number about 11 million nationwide, with 850,000 of them in Los Angeles County.)

In a roundtable discussion, arranged by Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky, Garcetti discussed all this and more. An edited version of that conversation follows; for the full transcript, go to this story at

JEWISH JOURNAL: Six years from now, what’s traffic going to be like in L.A. if you’re the mayor?

ERIC GARCETTI: We’ll be on the way to relieving traffic, no doubt. I don’t think it will be much better in six years. … It’s impossible to undo, you know, 40 to 50 years of urban planning in that short period of time. But I think the 10- to 20-year horizon is actually incredibly hopeful. We will build, you know, Measure M, $120 billion, about half of that to new capital [projects]. To boil that down, that’s 15 new lines or extensions of existing lines — the biggest, I think, physical change to this county since water came here. I don’t think it’s overstating.

JJ: What is homelessness going to be like at the end of the next term?

EG: I think we’ll be more than halfway home. … The biggest thing, I think, to end street homelessness is we need an army of social workers out there. I go out with these outreach teams all the time. I don’t know if a mayor’s done that before, but I go out as regularly as I can. I know people by their first names on the street now. I know their stories. And we had 15 people, trying to talk to 28,000 homeless Angelenos in the city of L.A. when I started. Just do the math. I’ve gotten that up to 80 through some city funds that I kind of have scraped along, but the reason I’m so passionate about Measure H is we probably need 500 or 600 — then we could really make an impact.

JJ: Talk about the deportations advocated by Trump. What are you prepared to do, and are you prepared to pay the price that you and the city might have to pay?

EG: Chief Justice [John] Roberts said [in a previous case that] the federal government cannot force you to do one thing in order to get money for another thing. … It’s very clear you can’t take port money because my cops won’t be turned into immigration officers. I’m not kidding myself that they won’t potentially try to take some dollars from us: Bring that fight on. I mean, what are you going to do? Take away radiological and biological weapons detectors at the port? You’re going to take away the vouchers that go to homeless vets that are now being housed and take away their rents?

I think this is a moment when [you should] stand up for your values, and we’re prepared to do that politically, legally and economically.

JJ: What obligations do you feel to Los Angeles’ very large Jewish community?

EG: I feel a deep one. I feel my values have been informed by both sides of my family. When I look at something like my responsibilities to the Jewish community, [they] are both direct in what I can do to serve them, but also in what we can do to activate each other. [Like] when a moment comes like people turned away from our airport because of their religion or the country of their origin. I re-read the [S.S.] St. Louis history, which, the one aspect I didn’t realize was, St. Louis wasn’t just turned away [in 1939] because it was refugees and Jews. They actually said they were worried there was a national security threat of Nazi spies on there, which is like so much a mirror of what the justification is right now for Syria and Somalia and other places.

JJ: Have you talked to law enforcement about the threats against Jewish facilities?

EG: Yes, I’ve talked to LAPD about it. Absolutely.

JJ: Is it a major concern of yours?

EG: It’s a concern. I’ve watched too many of us say the sky is falling before it actually falls, with this new administration and the change. I think we have to be really precise so that we don’t let anything go under-commented on but we don’t stoke the fears, as well. We’ve seen a doubling of hate incidents since the elections.

JJ: In Los Angeles? In the country?

EG: In Los Angeles. And that’s not just anti-Semitic.

JJ: According to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)?

EG: Yeah. LAPD statistics. So that’s what’s been reported. I get [reports] once a month, and I’ve asked them to add hate incidents since the election so I can track it more carefully.

JJ: Last question: What have you learned from your text studies with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR that’s made you become a better mayor of Los Angeles?

EG: Well, you know, it’s funny, like most good talmudic studies, you just sit around and gossip a lot. … I’ve learned a lot. It’s funny, I love being, for instance, in a Black church in South L.A. and bringing up the lessons she taught me about, you know, for instance that it was a sin in the olden days to pray in a room that was windowless, because you had to reflect the divinity. … God isn’t about going inward; it’s about reflecting outward that divinity. And so I use that as a metaphor for what our responsibilities are — for us to not just close into our communities and close into our issues but actually reflect that divinity off of us. …

It’s not just with Sharon but with other folks as I’ve kind of come to more faith and spent a lot more time going to services. I actually love the High Holidays. I get to hear some really brilliant thinking that, you know, rabbis have tried to encapsulate an entire year. And there’s, I would say, a real split right now between those who see this moment as a moment to stand up and be urgent and to possibly offend some folks that are in their congregations, and others who are playing it safer and saying look, we have diverse views, I can’t get involved in that, but let me just talk about internal things. And, you know, I personally err toward the former. Whether you’re a religious or a political leader, we’re called on in these moments to stand up.

Immigration and the image of God

Surprisingly – or maybe not – many of our current debates were foreshadowed by ancient rabbinical disputes.

One such foreshadowed debate was our national conundrum about immigration, legal and otherwise.

In his book Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, our Hebrew College professor Art Green recounts an argument between Rabbi Akiva and Simeon ben Azzai:

“What is Judaism’s most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva had a ready answer: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19: 18) is the basic rule of Torah.’ His friend Simeon ben Azzai disagreed. ‘I know a more basic rule than that,’ he said. And he quoted: ‘This is the book of human generations: On the day God created humans, He created them in the image of God (tzelem elohim); male and female He created them, blessing them and calling them humans on the day they were created’ (Gen. 5: 1– 2).”

Ben Azzai found Akiva’s answer about loving our neighbor unconvincing for two reasons.

First, he didn’t see how we could be commanded to love others. He thought of love as a feeling: we either have it or we don’t. Moreover, some people are unlovable, either because they are obnoxious or evil. To solve that problem, he argued that what’s required is not a feeling, but a recognition that all people are made in the image of God. That basic level of respect is what we owe to everyone.

His second reason followed from the first. If all people are created in the image of God, then it applies whether or not they are our neighbors. We owe all people at least that same basic level of respect. We should not treat people as less than they are merely because they’re unfamiliar to us.

Ben Azzai had the better argument because he based it not on involuntary feelings, but on things we could control. We can recognize the truth that every person is sacred, and we can act consistently with that truth.

However, Akiva also raised an important question: Do we have the same obligations to everyone, or do we have greater obligations to our “neighbor” than to total strangers?

Ben Azzai’s argument does not answer Akiva’s question. He’s right that we should respect all people as embodying the image of God. He’s right that we should consider their welfare important. He’s right that other things being equal, we should avoid harming them and sometimes try to help them.

What about when other things are not equal? Do our “neighbors” have a greater claim on us than other people?

Moral psychologists have a story called “the trolley dilemma.” A runaway trolley car is about to hit five people, but you can save their lives by pushing one person off a bridge onto the tracks. What should you do?

Most of us recoil in horror at the thought of pushing a person off the bridge, even if it would result in a net saving of four lives. Such cold-blooded utilitarian calculation seems repulsive.

But what if the person on the bridge was a stranger, and the five people on the tracks were your family? Then the decision becomes much tougher – agonizing so.

In the abstract, the two cases are the same: kill one person to save five people. But in the two cases, the people involved are not the same, and that makes a lot of difference.

The trolley dilemma presents a situation where the costs and benefits are known with certainty. In real life, we rarely have that much certainty. And it balances the welfare of a complete stranger, for whom we have no personal feelings, against the welfare of people we love.

Maybe some of us would kill the stranger in both cases. But for those of us who wouldn’t, it’s a much tougher decision when it could save our family. The point is that even if all people deserve a basic level of respect, our moral intuitions say that some people deserve more.

After that point, our moral intuitions are less helpful. Which people? Why? How much more respect? And what about cases where costs and benefits are uncertain? In most real-life situations, we deal with probabilities, not certainties. We rely on subjective judgments, not only about risks but about values.

Consider the immigration debate. Both sides can probably agree on these facts:

– Most immigrants pose no physical threat to Americans.

– Most immigrants are not refugees, but are economic migrants.

– A tiny minority of immigrants pose a physical threat to Americans.

Beyond that, the debate is no longer about facts. It’s about our moral duty to prospective immigrants, our moral duty to our fellow Americans, and our subjective assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks involved. The last factor is less important than we think, because our assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks is heavily biased by our pre-existing moral feelings.

I don’t have a provable answer, because there isn’t one. People who are equally intelligent, educated, and morally conscientious are on every side of that particular debate.

It’s not quite like the old joke about asking two Jews and getting three answers. In this case, we get a thousand answers, and we find people at each other’s throats about which of the thousand answers is absolutely and totally right. Such disputes are best resolved through the democratic process and, where applicable, through the decentralized decision-making that was a vital feature of the U.S. Constitution.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order restricting immigration. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Broad-based L.A. Jewish coalition forms to respond to Trump actions

A Los Angeles-based coalition of more than 1,800 self-identified Jews launched this week by releasing a statement that responds to executive actions on immigration and refugees and affirms a commitment to Jewish and American values.

“Frankly, I’ve never seen in my life in L.A. a coalition this broad, that’s come together for this single purpose,” said former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of six members of the organizing committee at the helm of the new group calling itself Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ).

The other committee members are former L.A. Congressman Mel Levine, civics scholar and social entrepreneur Shawn Landres, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, political consultant Dan Loeterman and attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

On Feb. 28, the six organizers sat down over breakfast in Myers’ Pico-Robertson home, the coalition’s impromptu command center, to explain the group’s goals to a reporter.

“We’re not aspiring to be another Jewish organization in the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. … We certainly imagine ourselves not displacing, but working alongside other organizations that are engaged in the same kind of work,” Myers said.

The group’s statement of principles doesn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, but addresses a perceived threat to democratic institutions posed by his administration.

“JUDJ is deeply concerned about rising threats to religious tolerance, equal rights, a free and fair press, human dignity, and long-held norms of decency and civil society,” the statement reads. “We will speak out and take action when our shared Jewish values require us to counter those threats.”

It lays out, in broad strokes, values it sees as threatened by the executive branch, including “America is a nation of laws” and “America is a nation of immigrants.”

“There’s an almost daily assault on one or another foundation of our democratic tradition — kind of aerial bombardment,” Myers said. “And I think what we’re saying is that in the midst of the confusion that is sown, we want to be a voice of clarity.”

The coalition came together after a Feb. 5 meeting of Jewish leaders in Myers’ living room, called in response to a Jan. 27 executive order by Trump that restricted admissions of refugees to the United States. After that meeting, members formed five working groups: immigration, long-term strategy, coalition building, lawyers and rabbis.

The statement of principles, first circulated widely on Feb. 24, represents the coalition’s public debut. By Feb. 28, the list of signatories included more than 110 clergy members, 55 current and former elected officials and 270 board officers and senior executives of Jewish communal groups and philanthropies.

The list incorporated members of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as well as other Jewish membership organizations; elected officials in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.; all three citywide elected officials in Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer, Controller Ron Galperin and Mayor Eric Garcetti; philanthropists; university professors; and clergy from every major denomination.

The move to establish a new coalition comes as some members of the Jewish community see a lack of organized leadership opposed to Trump’s actions. After Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson sent a community-wide email that addressed the refugee order without denouncing it, for instance, alumni of Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project wrote a letter expressing their disappointment and requesting that he take a stronger stance.

But members of the JUDJ organizing committee insisted the group wouldn’t compete with Federation or any other Jewish organization, but rather lend political capital to groups that can use it.

“We are not in competition with anybody else,” Levine said. “We’re inclusive and draw people from all of these organizations.”

Levine said one of the primary purposes of the coalition would be to support and join with communities targeted by the administration, naming in particular the Muslim and Hispanic communities. But it also seeks to unite Jews across political and demographic lines in support of democratic values.

“A lot of people in my generation weren’t around for the fights that Zev was around for,” said Loeterman, who is 28. “We weren’t around for the fights that David and Janice and Shawn and Mel were around for. … They see this as kind of our generation’s chance to join with other generations.”

President Donald Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States on Jan. 27. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump deserves credit for forcing a necessary immigration debate

There is nothing immoral about building a wall. A wall is a tool. Its aim is to separate between neighbors. To stop a ball from flying into your precious garden, to make it tougher for anyone to peep into your house, to prevent a child from walking without care into your swimming pool. Or to stop illegal immigrants from entering a country such as the United States.

There is also nothing immoral about a country wanting to keep tab on the people entering it. A country is defined by its citizenry and by its laws and by its borders. If there are no borders, there are no countries. Would a world with no countries be better than the one we have now? I doubt that. But even if the answer to this question is positive, no one can force a certain country to be the first one to forgo its borders – and test the proposition that a world without countries is a better world.

There is nothing immoral about a country having an immigration policy. In fact, all countries have immigration policies. Some stricter, some more loose. Some emphasize cultural characteristics; some emphasize economic abilities. Moreover: a country can alter its immigration policies – if its citizens, represented by their political leaders, decide that a new era requires a new policy.

Even using harsh language is not always a bad idea. At times, it is necessary to signal that the intentions of a leader are serious. At times, it is necessary for people in other countries to understand that they better look for options other than the country they thought about if they wish to immigrate.

Banning immigration from a certain country or region, banning immigration of people who speak a certain language, have a certain color, believe in a certain God, is what sovereign countries often do explicitly or implicitly. Of course, if a country bans black people, or Jews, or poor people, or Muslims, or citizens of Mexico, from entering it – this country tells us something about itself: that it favors a certain religion, or a certain race, or an economic status. That it has a prejudice against a religion, or a race, or an economic status. In other words: the rules with which a country governs its entry gate reflect on the country no less than they reflect on the people barred (or allowed) from getting in.

The Trump administration seems to want to reduce the number of people from certain backgrounds who enter the US. It also seems to want to make it harder for anyone to enter the US illegally. Both goals could be legitimate. Are possibly wise. Are arguably feasible.

Still, there is a debate – and as usual, it is confused, and noisy, and chaotic. In fact, no less chaotic than Trump himself.

What’s the debate all about?

In truth, the debate is about (or ought to be about) two important things and one unimportant (but potentially important) thing:

1. Important: Is the policy advocated by the Trump administration wise? Is it wise to limit the number of immigrants? And is it wise to limit the number of immigrants from Yemen or Iraq?

2. Important: Does the policy – the way it is devised, and even more so the way it is sold and advertised – reflect the values America stands for?

3. Not so important: Was the Trump administration efficient and savvy in implementing the new policy in the way it did?

Obviously, the debate about the third question is the easiest debate, and the most common. That is, because we all tend to argue about the things we see before our eyes. For example, a family that already seems to have its license to enter the US when it is stopped at the airport. For example, a court having to deal with a blunder at airports.

And, of course, for a certain family, or a certain person, the question of efficiency can make a huge difference. But for the nation the question of a policy’s initial efficiency is not the most important. We witnessed this with the initial blunder of the Obamacare website, and we witness it again today, with Trump’s initial immigration policy blunder. There is a tendency to confuse a debate about a policy with a debate about competence.

But these two debates are different. That is why you hardly ever see people who argue that Obamacare is great, only the Obama administration was not the right administration to implement it – and that is why you will hardly ever see people arguing that the Trump policy is great, only that the Trump administration is not the right administration to implement it. Generally speaking, the people who become angry with the implementation of a plan, with the competence, or lack thereof, of the administration, are the same people who oppose the policy to begin with. Only it is more convenient for many of them to talk about competence than to talk about their real motives – to oppose the policy itself.

So leaving competence aside (it is pretty clear that competence was not quite there when the president implemented his hastily crafted plan) we are still left with the two important questions: is the Trump policy on immigration wise? does the Trump policy on immigration reflect the values of America?

Is it wise?

In some ways, it certainly is. Walls work. Making immigration more difficult stops people from coming in. In some ways, questions remain: why Yemen and not Pakistan? Why Iraq and not Saudi Arabia? In some ways, it depends on one’s goals: Is it Trump’s goal to prevent excellent Muslim engineers from coming to work in the US? This is a question of weighing priorities. One could say: This is not economically wise (because the people of the US want good engineers to come to the country). One could also say: This is culturally wise (because the people of the US want to preserve a certain cultural coherence – and a large Muslim community disrupts such coherence).

Does it reflect America’s values?

In some ways, it certainly does. America voted for Donald Trump knowing full well what he intends to do. If the values of America are the values of Americans – and if Americans voted for the exact policy Trump is currently implementing – then the policy reflects what are currently the values of the American people.

In some ways, questions remain: Does current-day America believe in profiling groups rather than looking at specific persons? Does it judge people by their religious beliefs and life circumstances rather than their behavior? Does it speak in such a dismissive way about other people, who were not lucky enough to be born American citizens? Half of America doesn’t seem to want to do these things, and their values are also American values.

In some ways, it depends not strictly on values but rather on one’s evaluation of risks: All Americans want to save American lives, and all Americans feel for the refugees from war-torn Syria, but not all Americans agree about the level of risk America would be taking, or ought to be taking, in letting refugees from Syria enter the country. The values – keeping America safe and helping refuges – are shared. The risk assessment makes the difference.

So what is the bottom line of all of these points?

A. That immigration policy is complicated. In fact, it is one of the most complicated acts of any government. Crafting an immigration policy is a balancing act for any society. The debate about immigration can be harsh, but at bottom it is a healthy debate, because it helps clarify for the people of any country what is the cultural environment they prefer as they envision the future of their country. With all the many problems that rightly alarm the critics of Trump, the new president deserves some credit for refusing to let the current status quo (and more than an ounce of intellectual and bureaucratic laziness) shape America’s cultural future.

B. That hollow slogans cannot capture the complexity of this matter – neither Trump’s slogans, nor his critics’. Trump, by being blunt and contrarian, makes it hard to agree with his policies which seem to be lacking in thoughtfulness and compassion and respect for people whose only sin is to want to join the American bandwagon. His harshest critics, by failing to differentiate between what is reasonable (having a secure border) and what is questionable (talking derogatively about Muslims), also make it hard for Americans to trust their judgment.

At gala dinner, Mexican President Pena Nieto thanks American Jews for pro-immigration stand

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praised the Jewish community of the United States for supporting the rights of Hispanic immigrants.

“You have raised the banner of this cause,” he said.

The president addressed 150 Jews from North and South America at a gala dinner last night at Mexico City's Centro Deportivo Israelita. The event marked the culmination of a three-day conference hosted by the American Jewish Committee to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.

Guests in sharp evening attire stood as the handsome, young president entered along with three top-level cabinet members. 

AJC Executive Director David Harris welcomed Pena Nieto, affirming the Jewish community’s support for his efforts to bring economic reform and equality to the country.  Conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer introduced the president by stressing the value of “the trilateral relationship” of the United States, Israel and Mexico.

American Jewish Committee conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer shakes hands with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

In his extended remarks, Pena Nieto did not mention Israel. He did stress the Mexican-Jewish contribution to the country’s development, then returned to the plight of the Mexican-American community.

“Your loud voice protects the rights of the immigrant community in the United states,” Pena Nieto said, “You are great partners.”

Pena Nieto also thanked the American and Mexican-Jewish community for supporting his efforts at developing Mexico's economy and reducing inequality. 

“The cause we share is development of Mexico. You have been part of this,” he said.

Guests included Israeli Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled as well as ambassadors from Azerbaijan, Armenia Turkey, and several other countries.  

After the president spoke, he remained for dinner, dessert, and a performance by the Centro Deportivo Israelita dance troupe, who performed traditional Mexican dances to Jewish music. The president stayed to the end.

“He brought the government with him, and he stayed,” one impressed Mexican-Jewish businessman said. “He’s saluting our people.”

The entire conference began Nov. 9 with a rare ceremony inside the Metropolitan Cathedral.  Mexican television and press turned out in force as the AJC audience gathered in front of the massive gold-leaf main altar to hear a panel of Catholic and Jewish leaders mark the 50 year anniversary of Nostra Aetate.

Billed as a “dialogue,” the event unfolded more as a series of brief speeches lauding Pope Paul VI’s October 28, 1965 declaration that reversed centuries of official Catholic anti-Semitism.

“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City,  “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”

Rivera, who is Mexico’s highest-ranking priest, said that Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.

“We have to learn to walk together,” said Rivera.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to Mexico, declared that Nostra Aetate means, “fighting any form of anti-Semitism, insults, discrimination, or persecution.”

Both priests emphasized that Jews and Catholics can be partners in responding to the pope’s call to address climate change and environmental degradation.

Nostra Aetate, said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, established that, “it is wrong to present Jews as rejected and condemned.”

Rosen recounted several meetings between the American Jewish Committee and the current pope, and praised his deep connection to the Jews.

“Not since St. Peter has a pope known the Jewish community as well as Pope Francis does,” Rosen said.

While the church officials emphasized that Nostra Aetate was a way for “enemies” to reconcile, the Jewish speakers saw the landmark statement as the Church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.

“What we are celebrating is true teshuva,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” though its root meaning is “return.”  “The Church is returning to its origins.”

The AJC promotes partnerships among Jewish communities and between Jews and the wider society.  While much of its most important work is behind the scenes—and off the record–this conference focused on very public displays of cooperation between Latin and North American Jewry and Jews and Latin America.

Salomón Chertorivski, Secretary of Economic Development of Mexico City, drove that theme home with a keynote speech during a dinner hosted by the Mexican Jewish community at the Gran Hotel (Jewish-owned, and the location of an opening scene from the new James Bond movie).

The up and coming young Mexican Jewish politician praised the great strides in Mexican development but urged the well-heeled audience to work with Mexico to help close the country’s gaping divide between rich and poor.

The greatest risk to the Jewish community, he said, is a Mexico  “fragmented” along class lines.

During the day, panel presentations on issues pertaining to Jews, Israel and Latin America took center stage.

Israel’s Ambassador to Uruguay, Nina Ben Ami, and Israel’s Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled discussed the challenges of representing Israel during the Gaza War, and cooperation between Israel and Mexico through the Mashav program.

At a state-of-the-Jews session one afternoon, Jewish community leaders from Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil presented the situation of their communities.

The situation ranged from positive if not problem-free to dire, with the majority at the positive end of the scale.  The Colombian government, for instance, is deeply pro-Israel—the only Latin American country that has refused to recognize a Palestinian state. 

The philo-Semitism extends to its people—some 6,000 Colombian Christians have converted to Judaism, and rabbinical officials worry about the increasing demand.

Generally, the problems the Jewish leaders faced tended to be problems shared by their wider societies—their fate is tied to the fate of their countries.

There were, however, deep concerns voiced by experts about the situation of Jews in Venezuela, whose ruling party has aligned itself closely with Iran and Hezbollah.  AJC officials said they continue to monitor the situation there with concern.

But at the gala dinner for Mexico’s president, the focus was on partnerships that are working.

AJC Executive Director David Harris addressed the President of Mexico directly, thanking him for deepening Mexico’s relationship with Israel and declaring, “Mr. President, know that day and night, 24/7 you have friends in the U.S. We at AJC have stood with you and we stand proudly with you tonight.”

Central American immigrants’ story reflects Jews’ past

I recently was part of a small group of lawyers given the opportunity to tour the family immigration detention centers in southern Texas. The purpose of the trip was to introduce us to the facilities and the detainees and to urge us and our law firms to contribute our time and skills to representing detained women and children. The trip was eye-opening in so many ways. The professional mountains needed to be climbed to help these terror-stricken families are matched only by the personal trauma so evident in the eyes of so many. We came face-to-face with the trauma experienced by today’s immigrants and with the ghosts of our past. 

As all of us on the tour were children and grandchildren of immigrants, and several of us, as Jews, particularly aware of our immigrant ancestry, we saw these facilities and the 1,000 women and children currently being held there through the filter of our own histories. At the Karnes City and Dilley detention facilities, we witnessed up close the results of the national debate on immigration. Both sites are about 60 to 90 minutes outside of San Antonio, although they might as well have been in another world, for all we knew and all we were prepared to see — the world of our ancestors.

Our group of lawyers was first alerted to this border crisis last summer at a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden on other pro bono related projects. During that meeting, he asked us, board members of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, to keep an eye open for an impending surge of immigrants crossing the United States-Mexico border. Newspapers across the county ultimately covered the arrival of this enormous influx of unaccompanied children escaping heinous violence in their native countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many of those children and their families have been the victims of awful domestic violence; some have seen family members murdered, others have been raped, more have experienced the loss of a disappeared loved one. Officials in their native countries often are powerless or unwilling to provide protection. All of these immigrants have one thing in common: They are running for their lives, and the lives of their families, risking everything to make a treacherous journey north, seeking the protection and promise of the United States.

At the facilities, we saw children who were clearly not healthy. Their life-endangering journeys to the U.S. left them exhausted, sick and scared. Many had lost a frightening amount of weight. Even more gut-wrenching, the children plaintively asked their mothers, “Why are we in jail?” Mothers cried to the lawyers, begging for help. Some had been held for six, eight, 10, even as long as 12 months. It was heartbreaking.

Amazingly, most of the detained families have viable asylum claims, making them eligible to remain in the U.S., entitling them to find safety in the promise of democracy. But without the chance to be represented by attorneys, they are without hope. As many as 95 percent of those without counsel will be deported simply because they are poor and cannot find representation. Many likely could pass their “credible fear interviews,” establishing to the satisfaction of U.S. immigration authorities they have a credible fear of returning to their home countries. This means they essentially could prove the bona fides of a legally sufficient asylum claim that, under the law, would entitle them to be released from detention. However, without lawyers, they cannot navigate the system, they are too frightened to tell their stories, the complexities of a foreign legal system are too overwhelming, and so, as a result, they likely will be returned to the dangerous places they risked their lives to leave. All because they are poor and do not have access to help.

One recently released mother told us of how she, her husband and young son had escaped a vicious rogue military group. Their other son, who is older, had been abducted. The family learned he had been taken by the “military.” The mother embarked on a desperate, ultimately futile search for her child. She first asked, asked again and then hounded local officials. She went to the police. She asked friends for help. Months passed, but her son was nowhere to be found. She repeatedly was warned to back off, stop going to the police, told not to contact local or foreign officials. One day, while this mother and her family were visiting her father in a nearby town, neighbors called to warn her not to return home because the family’s house was being ransacked, and angry men with guns were searching for her. The family fled to the U.S. with only the clothes they were wearing, trying desperately to save their remaining son, whose life they still had in their hands. At the border they were detained, the father sent to one facility, the mother and son to Karnes City. They were held for months, the young boy asking for his brother and his father, not eating, getting sicker and sicker. It was heartbreaking.

Another mother was with her daughter. They had witnessed the rape of another daughter and the murder of the father. They themselves then had barely escaped the horrors of their gang-controlled village, with local authorities unable to provide any kind of meaningful prosecution, much less protection. Similar stories abounded.

My thoughts quickly turned to another young woman. Like the women we had just met, she had escaped marauding soldiers in the countryside of her homeland. She was a teenager who had witnessed her sister being brutally raped and her brother carried off by the “army,” never to be seen again. Her parents scraped together enough money to hire someone to smuggle her out of the country. Her treacherous journey landed her in jail. When her family was able to secure her release, terrified and sick, the family sent her off again. This time, she reached the United States. She was reunited with her grandmother while in detention. When they ultimately were released, she managed to make a safe life for herself. However, she was forever scarred, forever frightened, forever missing her absent family members. That lone, brave teenage girl was my grandmother, fleeing from the pogroms of czarist Russia.

It is often said we are a nation of immigrants, all of us having become Americans because someone in our past was strong enough to escape oppression and find safety in the arms of democracy. Whether it was czarist pogroms, Nazi genocide, Middle East dictatorships or communist regimes, all of us are here because our ancestors had the inner strength to flee for their lives and make it through the Karnes City and Dilley of their day. Our Jewish bubbes and zaydes, often as young children, came through Ellis Island or through European displaced persons camps. Their immigrant transition was difficult. Language issues, poverty, anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-Semitism made for a hard climb up society’s social ladder. They were helped by a system of Jewish communal support and by the safety net of community. Today, American Jews are the living embodiment of one side of the current immigration debate. We are here and thriving in the United States because, despite many obstacles, this country opened its arms like no other culture had ever before done for us. These Latin American women today are escaping the same kinds of dangers, obstacles and nightmares that our ancestors fled, seeking peace and solace. As Jews, our histories remind us of the hurdles they will face and the helping hands they will need, which are within our hearts to fulfill. The ghosts of our grandmothers today are sitting in detention in southern Texas.

Attorneys interested in providing pro bono support to the women and children in detention or to those who have been recently released can contact their local immigration legal aid offices, the San Antonio office of RAICES ( and the American Immigration Council (

David A. Lash is an attorney in Los Angeles, serving as the managing counsel of pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.

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.”

‘Don’t take my daddy’: When the immigration debate hits home

No matter where you sit on the immigration debate, it’s hard not to be moved by what happened to little Adam, an 8-year-old Jewish boy from the San Fernando Valley who watched his father being taken away on the morning of Oct. 18.

Adam was holding his father’s hand as they started their short walk to school. They had barely left their house when five vehicles surrounded them — three black town cars and two silver-gray SUV’s. As a group of men got out of the vehicles and confronted his father, Adam felt his father’s hand being pulled away from his.

Now alone on the street, and seeing his dad being handcuffed, Adam started screaming, “Don’t take my daddy! Don’t take my daddy!” One of the men told him, “Back away, son.”

Meanwhile, Adam’s mother, who had just kissed him and his father goodbye and saw the scene unfolding, ran toward the men who were taking her husband, none of them in uniform. 

“My husband is not a criminal!” she yelled. “Where are you taking him?”

Despite all the screaming and protestations, within minutes the whole episode was over. Adam’s father, the lynchpin of the family, disappeared in a speeding convoy of dark vehicles.

This dramatic scene of a family being torn apart was many long years in the making. It’s a story that encapsulates the heart-wrenching dilemmas confronting America as it decides what to do about its millions of illegal immigrants.

The story began innocently enough about 12 years ago, when a single Jewish woman in her early 30s, Laura Michaelson, met a sweet and attractive single man, Willebaldo Reyes (she calls him “Willie”), at a West Los Angeles gym.

They started dating and fell in love. Laura was conflicted about dating outside of the Jewish faith, but her new boyfriend loved Judaism, and she knew that if they had a family together, the children would be raised Jewish.  

Laura, who is a vocational counselor for people with disabilities, also knew that Willie did not have his immigration papers, but there were some hopeful signs.

Willie was being sponsored by a Mexican restaurant where he worked, and Laura figured that if he married an American citizen, it would surely help.

As she would learn, however, Willie’s situation was a lot more complicated. Years before meeting Laura, he had entered the country illegally from Mexico and started making a decent living doing bodywork on expensive cars. He even got a driver’s license and California ID card. But when his mother fell ill in Mexico, he had to return to take care of her.

It’s when he came back to the United States that he made his first fatal mistake. Instead of re-entering illegally, he took his chances with his California ID card. That got him arrested and deported on the spot. He re-entered the following day (illegally), but by then, his name was already in the system.

This episode haunted him for years. He was grateful that he had several jobs and could send a little money back to his relatives in Mexico, but he knew he was living in the shadows of the law. When he met and fell in love with Laura and dreamed of starting his own family, his fear of being deported became a daily obsession.

This fear was matched only by his intense desire to obtain legal status. So, after they married, had Adam and started building a life together, Willie made his second fatal mistake.

Following the advice of a shady immigration “Notario,” who charged him $4,000, Willie, in partnership with Laura, filed what’s called an I-130, an application for formal entry. His mistake, as any good immigration attorney will tell you, is that he should have waited until he got a response to his Freedom of Information Act request, so he’d know what the government had on him before filing the I-130.

Of course, the government had plenty on him, namely, his fingerprints and arrest record from when he was deported at the border many years back.

What he got on the morning of Oct. 18 was a lot worse than a rejection. He got another deportation.

Laura broke down a few times when she told me the story — but she’s fighting back. She feels her own rights have been violated.

Since that fateful morning, she has been on a mission to bring her husband home, firing off letters to everyone from her local councilman to President Obama. The most hopeful response so far has been a personal letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, expressing support and promising to help.

Legally, their chances are not good. The attorneys she has consulted so far have told her that unless the law changes, they’ll have to wait 10 years to reapply for legal entry. That depresses her, but it doesn’t break her will to fight on.

In the meantime, she and Adam spend long hours on Skype staying connected with Willie, who’s living with his mother in Mexico. Adam, who was very close to his father, is having anxiety attacks.

I can imagine that seeing his father’s face on a computer screen is reassuring, but it’s a far cry from the comfort of holding his hand.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Immigration bill: For nannies and caregivers, legal status isn’t enough

At 2 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Amelia Barnachea waited in a copy shop in downtown Los Angeles, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I’m exercising,” the diminutive Filipina-American home health aide explained, looking very spry for her 72 years. 

Barnachea, who officially retired years ago, had spent the previous 18 hours filling in for a friend who was responsible for an ailing white woman only a few years Barnachea’s senior. 

Barnachea said she’d been awake almost the entire time. 

“I had to feed her. The place was dirty, so I had to clean. I had to cook something for her to eat,” Barnachea said. “That’s the work of an aide.”

Domestic work is often fluid, and the treatment of workers varies depending on their bosses. But federal laws that grant basic protections to almost all other workers in the United States — minimum wage requirements, for instance, and laws governing overtime pay — don’t apply to elder-care workers like Barnachea. Some workers don’t even get a standard meal break.

“Right now, some of our members have to pull food out of their pockets and eat whenever they can,” said Aquilina Soriano, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California. “There are some employers who don’t want them to sit down even for a moment.”

[Related: The proposed reforms, rights and regulations]

On June 27, the U.S. Senate approved an immigration bill that would bring 11 million people living illegally in the United States out from the shadows; should it become law, the bill would grant provisional legalized status to millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, offering them a path to citizenship. Legalized status would also bring with it other concrete benefits, including the ability to visit family members abroad and to get a driver’s license.

Activists aren’t popping champagne yet, as it’s not clear whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will pass similar legislation and allow the Senate’s bill to take effect. What’s more, advocates for domestic workers’ rights are also acutely aware that even if the Senate bill were to become law, without additional changes to existing state laws and federal regulations newly legalized domestic workers could still find themselves stuck working in a shadow economy. 

“Should immigration reform be enacted into law, it will be a tremendously positive change in the lives of these people and for our country,” said Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, who also runs the progressive Jewish group’s political action committee. “At the same time, home care workers who are here legally, or are citizens, face a huge array of challenges.” 

Rabbi Heather Miller, center, sounds a shofar at a 24-hour vigil that began on June 26, one day before the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

’The standards are basically not governed by law’

Bend the Arc was one of a number of Jewish groups actively lobbying for passage of the Senate version of comprehensive immigration reform. Others include the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has devoted significant resources to organizing Jews behind immigration reform and published a handbook in 2012 titled “Immigration Reform: A Jewish Issue?” In it, AJC invokes economics, national security and demographic power politics to make the case that Jews should get behind reform. 

To persuade Jews to get involved with an issue that will mostly benefit non-Jews, the AJC brochure also leans heavily on the Jewish history of immigration to the United States and on biblical and talmudic texts. 

Yet while immigration reform advocates ask Jews to think about what today’s laws might have meant for their grandparents and great-grandparents a century ago, domestic workers’ rights advocates are asking Jews to consider what today’s laws mean for the people who clean their homes, care for their children and look out for their aging parents.

U.S. labor law doesn’t do much to protect domestic workers. Household employers are explicitly exempted from laws that apply in other workplaces, and where laws do exist they regularly go unheeded and unenforced. 

“The standards are basically not governed by law,” said Kevin Kish, director of the employment rights project for the legal aid nonprofit Bet Tzedek. “They’re governed by community standards.”

Over the years, Bet Tzedek has represented victims of the most egregious abuse — including one woman brought from Peru to Los Angeles by a professor as a housekeeper. The professor then confiscated her passport and forbade her from leaving the house, then beat her and threatened her family. When the worker made efforts to contact Bet Tzedek, her employer attempted to get her deported back to Peru. 

[Related: Modern slavery — Answering the cry]

Such stories of brutality toward domestic workers are rare, but the lesser abuses also add up: Those who work behind the closed doors of private homes typically earn low wages and rarely receive the benefits afforded other employees. They also work in environments that can be hazardous, and they must endure abuses of power with little recourse to act. 

These were the findings of the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED) at the University of Illinois at Chicago in its 2012 survey of more than 2,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers in 14 cities across the United States. Thirty-five percent of workers reported working long hours with no breaks, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the workers surveyed reported being paid less than minimum wage ($8 an hour in California), and only 9 percent reported having a written contract with their employers. Nineteen percent of workers said they had been subjected to threats or verbal abuse on the job. 

Undocumented domestic workers, who made up 36 percent of the survey’s respondents, were markedly worse off than their counterparts. Median wages for those without legal status were found to be 17 percent lower than those of U.S. citizens employed in households.

The survey results suggest that even household employers who adhere to the models of common practice in their communities may in fact be breaking existing laws. 

Although there’s no way of documenting this, it’s commonly believed that the overwhelming majority of household employers — some estimate between 80 and 95 percent — do not pay taxes on wages paid to household employees. Indeed, fewer than 9 percent of the domestic workers surveyed by CUED in 2012 reported that their employers pay into Social Security on their behalf. 

And while current California law does not require that caregivers get breaks or overtime pay, some household employees — including housekeepers — are entitled to such benefits.

Nevertheless, Kish said, many employers ignore these laws as well. 

’These people, their lives depend upon this wage’

Lately, some Jewish communities have been devoting increased attention to this issue. Last month, Bet Tzedek’s Kish participated in a conversation with Rav Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea about what California law and Jewish law require of employers vis-à-vis their household employees. 

On some subjects — the prompt payment of wages, for instance — Jewish law is unambiguous. 

“These people, their lives depend upon this wage, and that’s why you have to be so particular — so machmir (stringent), really — about making sure that you’re paying people on time,” Kanefsky told a reporter, a few weeks after he covered the topic at a Shabbat afternoon program on June 1. 

This commandment can be traced back to a verse in Deuteronomy: “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.” Yet the 2012 survey found that 23 percent of household employees said they had been paid late on at least one occasion in the past year. Ten percent said that during that same period, they had been paid less than what they were owed — or nothing at all. 

Kanefsky also took on a more nuanced question: From the standpoint of halachah (Jewish law), when may an employer cancel an agreement to engage an employee’s services? 

The Talmud addresses this in terms of agricultural workers, but Kanefsky applied the biblical text to the present day. If a parent comes home early from work and wants to send the nanny home, Kanefsky told me that halachah requires the full day’s wages be paid to the worker. If a family goes on vacation and expects an employee to be available for them upon their return, they have “some degree of financial obligation” to that employee for the wages that would have been paid during that time. 

“The only circumstance under which the employer is not committed to pay the wage,” Kanefsky said, “is if, (a) what happened is a completely unpredictable ’act of God’ and the employer did everything in his or her power to ensure that the work would be there, and (b) that the person didn’t commence work.”

Interestingly, Kanefsky said that he and his congregants agreed in advance that they would not address questions of immigration. 

“At least for our first go-round, we felt that we wanted to talk about the issues that people would come and engage with and not with issues that they would be squirming in their seats about,” Kanefsky said. 

Nonetheless, Bet Tzedek’s Kish, who is not Jewish, said he was surprised by the high standard for behavior Kanefsky espoused to the 40 members of his congregation who attended the program in early June.  

When employers and domestic workers hash out their responsibilities to one another, Kish said, “A lot of the negotiation doesn’t refer to law or what’s written in the labor code. It’s, ’What do your friends do? What does your family do? What do people in your community do?’ “

’Be a mensch’

It’s not clear how many Jews are asking such questions at all. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, said that the questions his congregants ask about domestic workers are focused less on wages and more often concern questions about “what a non-Jewish worker inside the home is allowed to do with regard to matters of observance.” 

Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, said he has been asked by congregants — infrequently — what Jewish tradition has to say about domestic employees. Most of the time, he said, they’re not asking about immigration issues, even if they are employing people who don’t have authorization to work in this country. 

Those who do come with questions, Bernhard said, mostly want to talk about wages and vacations, and, in his experience, most appear to “already know the answers” to the questions they’re asking.

“What I would say is, ’Look, be a mensch. Now we have to figure out what that looks like in this situation,’ ” he said. “But that’s really what they’re looking for. They want to be a mensch.”

Such rabbinic guidance may be sufficient for individual cases, but domestic workers and the activists working on their behalf are trying to broaden accountability among employers and inject more specificity into these kinds of discussions. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), was developed with input from household employees and would grant certain basic rights to domestic workers that they don’t have at present. 

“Right now, nannies and caregivers do not have the right to overtime pay, do not have the right to meals and rest breaks,” Soriano of the Pilipino Workers Center said. “This creates the situation where they are working around the clock and being compensated very little.”

Soriano’s group is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has been advocating for bills of rights for domestic workers in a number of states, including California. Other Jewish and interfaith groups, including the L.A.-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, have gotten involved in these state-specific efforts, as well. 

NDWA, together with Bend the Arc and the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, are members of the Caring Across Generations movement, which is pushing President Barack Obama to approve new regulations formulated by the Department of Labor that will extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers. 

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Ammiano’s bill, AB 241, would grant to California’s domestic workers these and a handful of other rights. On May 29, the California Assembly voted 45-25 to approve the bill; the State Senate’s Industrial and Labor Relations Committee also approved the bill in a hearing on the bill on June 26. 

It’s the second time the legislation is making its way through Sacramento; in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, citing concerns about the “economic and human impact” of the bill on those who are cared for by domestic workers. 

Should the State Senate pass the bill and the governor sign it — and Carlos Alcala, Ammiano’s communications director, said it’s hard to predict which way Brown will go on this issue — California would join New York and Hawaii in adopting an explicit bill of rights for domestic workers. 

Each one of those bills has its own particular language and protections. The Hawaii law specifically protects breastfeeding employees against discrimination; the California bill introduced in the last legislative session granted workers permission to use the kitchen in the home “without charge or deduction from pay.”

“That would be a little problematic for us,” said Irving Lebovics, chair of the California branch of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox advocacy organization. As written, the law looked as though it might have compelled Orthodox employers to allow employees to use their kosher kitchens. 

Language was added to the bill the first time around, Lebovics said, that exempted employers with specific food allergies or dietary restrictions from allowing their workers to use their kitchens. That language has been replicated in the current bill. 

As for the question of how non-Jewish workers should eat in kosher-observant households, Lebovics called it a “non-issue.” 

“We’ll go the extra mile to make sure they have what to eat,” he said. “If somebody wants something that’s not kosher, they’re free to eat it. Just not inside the house.”

But what some Orthodox Jews see as a non-issue appears to have been experienced by some domestic workers as an insult. 

One afternoon last month, I listened as a number of domestic workers, including some who have worked for Jewish families, spoke about their experiences. They all said they feel particularly vulnerable — either because they are not in this country legally or because they feared for their jobs and for future employment — and all asked that their names not be included in this article. One, who I’ll call L, recalled an unpleasant experience with the Jewish family that employed her mother in the 1990s. 

The mother in this family didn’t just prohibit L’s mother from eating non-kosher food in the house, but extended the ban into the backyard. L had been visiting her mother at the time, and she told me she remembered watching as her mother’s Jewish employer snatched food away from them, threw it across the backyard, and then forced L’s mother to go clean it up. 

Another woman told me that she had heard stories of domestic workers being forced by their kosher-observant Jewish employers to eat their lunches outside, or in the family’s garage.

Whether these anecdotes represent common practice among observant Jewish employers is impossible to ascertain, but Rabbi Nachman Abend, associate director at the Chabad of North Hollywood for the past seven years, said he hadn’t heard of any situations in which employees perceived kosher laws as insulting. 

“I would say most people respect religion, and most people, if you take the time to explain it to them, not only do they not take offense, but they appreciate it very much,” Abend said. 

’I almost cried. It had been so long since I had heard any words of appreciation.’

Abend’s own family employs a domestic worker — he and his wife have five children, including twin babies — and when he gets questions from members of his community, he offers guidance not so much from Jewish law but from his own practice. 

“I don’t know if they’re asking me as a Jewish legal authority or as a rabbi, friend and mentor,” Abend said. “I give general advice. So if somebody asks me if they should pay their nanny for July 4, or whatever national holiday is coming up, I say, ’I do.’ “

This question — how should a person treat his mother’s caregiver or her child’s nanny? — appears to be on the minds of many people these days, and on the minds of Jews, in particular. 

A parents group in a wealthy neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been conducting annual surveys of “nanny compensation” that cover everything from the range of hourly wages to whether “major Jewish holidays” are paid holidays for nannies. 

Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, a group started in 2010 by (mostly Jewish) employers of nannies, caregivers and housekeepers, issued guidelines to help other domestic employers foster “dignified and respectful working conditions” in their homes. 

So I asked Soriano, whose group represents more than 600 Filipina caregivers and other domestic employees, what advice she would give to domestic employers looking to be good bosses. First, Soriano urged employers to value their employee’s time, and to understand the power imbalance between employees and their employers. 

“Sometimes,” she continued, “when an employer is asking an employee to work, it’s not easy for the domestic worker to say no — even if they have other obligations at that time.”

Soriano went on: “It’s really about how they’re treated, as well. They’re not servants; they’re whole human beings, with families. If they’re being treated as if they’re not a whole person a lot of the time, I know from our members that really makes them feel bad.”

One of the domestic workers who spoke with me earlier this month, whom I’ll call S, said she had once quit a job she didn’t like, but it was only after her next employer thanked her for work she had done that she realized how unhappy she had been while working for her prior boss. 

“I almost cried,” S said. “It had been so long since I had heard any words of appreciation.”

Nothing in California’s proposed domestic worker’s bill of rights entitles a worker to receive thanks from her employer. But the bill would require employers to pay overtime and grant meal and rest breaks to all of their domestic employees. And while there’s no guarantee that  this new law will be followed any more widely than the existing ones, activists feel hopeful that the bill of rights could function as a starting point to educate domestic employers about how to treat their workers. 

Amelia Barnachea is working on the effort to pass the bill of rights in California. But just before she headed home for some (long-overdue) rest, she offered a philosophical explanation of what makes for a good working relationship. 

“If there is love and care [between an aide and her patient], you can work for a long time,” she said. “If there is none of those, just money, you can’t stay long. You cannot work for money alone.”

On the morning after, Jewish Republicans advise the party

Think immigration through — again. Forget about gay marriage. And for heaven’s sake, when it comes to rape, shut up!

The Republican Party as a whole is having the morning-afters, reconsidering how it might have done better in an election that saw the party fail to win the White House and suffer modest losses in Congress, and Jewish Republicans and conservatives are coming forward with their own insights.

“There will be a lot of very frank conversations between our organization and its leadership and the leadership within the party,” Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said last week in a conference call that otherwise addressed gains that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared to have made among Jewish voters.

A number of Romney’s financial backers — including Fred Zeidman of Texas, Mel Sembler of Florida and Sheldon Adelson — are among the RJC’s leadership, and Brooks made clear that their voices would be heard.

“A lot of the major financial support the candidates received was from the members of this organization,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of weight behind their message on that.”

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America and a former deputy to Brooks at the RJC, said Republican Jews would likely advise the party to moderate.

“The conventional wisdom is that the election will result in the shift of the Republican Party to the center, particularly on issues of immigration,” Daroff said. “To the extent that the party does shift, it would make Republican candidates more appealing to Jewish voters who may be inclined to vote Republican on foreign policy and homeland security issues but who have been turned off by conservative Republicans rigidity on social issues.

Some of the leading voices counseling moderation of hard-line Republican policies have been Jewish conservatives. One of the first post-election posts from Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post, said it was time to stop opposing gay marriage in the political arena.

“Republicans for national office would do well to recognize reality,” Rubin said. “The American people have changed their minds on the issue and fighting this one is political flat-earthism. As with divorce, one need not favor it, but to run against it is folly, especially for national politicians who need to appeal to a diverse electorate.”

Charles Krauthammer, the syndicated columnist, noted sharp Democratic gains among Hispanic voters and counseled a change in immigration policy, making clear that the current GOP emphasis on securing the borders should be followed by amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Romney had advocated disincentives, including making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get jobs and educations, that would push them to leave, or “self deport.”

“Many Hispanics fear that there will be nothing beyond enforcement. So, promise amnesty right up front,” Krauthammer wrote in his Nov. 9 column.  “Secure the border with guaranteed legalization to follow on the day the four border-state governors affirm that illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle.”

Zeidman, the fundraiser, said Jewish Republicans had a special role in making the case for immigration reform.

“The rest of the party has to understand what we as Jews have always understood — that this is a nation of immigrants and to ignore them is to end up losing,” he said.

A number of conservatives have lashed back against calls for policy changes, saying that the party was missing the ideas revolution underpinning the 2010 Tea Party insurgency that propelled Republicans to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There's no point in two Democratic parties,” said Jeff Ballabon, a Republican activist from New York. “Any such victory would be pyrrhic.”

Singling out gay marriage or immigration was self-defeating, said Ballabon.

“All the postmortems focus on demographics — that's playing the Democrats' game, that's a loss right there,” he said.

Recalling the drawing power of a figure like Ronald Reagan, Ballabon said positions on hot-button issues matter less than a party leader who can appeal across demographic lines.

“The only chance we have is there's another bold visionary who can attract people not based on divide and conquer, but who can inspire people to core American ideals — liberty, freedom, personal responsibility,” Ballabon said.

Tevi Troy, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said the problem was not with policies but with how they were presented.

“There are messaging challenges,” he said. ”I don't think any of our candidates should talk about rape.”

GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana — states that otherwise went solidly for Romney — both lost their seats after making controversial marks about rape that were widely reported and derided. Their losses facilitated a net Democratic gain in the body from 53 to 55.

Troy said the Republican Party could learn from its Jewish supporters how to frame its vision of an America of opportunity in ways that would appeal to minorities and immigrants.

“You do have a place in America to succeed,” he said. “Jews are a paradigmatic example of a minority that came to the U.S. and did very well in the American system.”

Troy said also that the party should consider gradual and not radical changes in some areas. For instance, reversing “Obamacare,” the president’s health care reforms mandating universal coverage, was likely no longer an option.

“Repealing Obamacare is not viable right now,” said Troy, an assistant health secretary under President George W. Bush. “I still think the law needs significant reforms, and now is the time to talk about it.”

Noam Neusner, a domestic policy adviser and speechwriter for the George W. Bush administration, said that Jewish Republicans were not necessarily more moderate than other Republicans. Instead, he suggested, the party’s Jews represented a bridge to other communities that tended to perceive Romney as remote.

Neusner noted a secretly recorded fundraiser at which Romney referred to hard-core Obama voters as the 47 percent of the country who saw themselves as victims. The Obama campaign hammered Romney with the remarks, replaying the video in ads in swing states.

“The biggest problem with that 47 percent video is that he portrayed people who don't have wealth as victims,” Neusner said of Romney. “Most Jewish Republicans come from families with no wealth and have seen in America a wonderful place to create wealth, and they want to preserve that for others, especially immigrants.”

Similarly, Neusner said, Jews were well placed to convey the freedoms offered by American religious liberties. He referred specifically to an Obama order this year mandating contraceptives coverage for women who work at religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and orphanages.

“Jewish Republicans need to stand with our Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Hindu friends that there's a place in public life for religious institutions, and the government should not impose itself on those institutions,” he said.

If Romney wins: Five things every Jew should know about Mormonism

1. Devout Mormons can be found all across the political spectrum.

The Mormon Church doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties, and although most American Mormons are Republicans, a Mormon Democrat has served as the Senate Majority Leader for the last five years. Owing to our history of persecution and emphasis on self-reliance, there is also a noteworthy group of Mormons with libertarian sympathies who do not easily identify with either party.

Mormons can be found on all sides of most issues. On immigration, for example, many Mormons tend to be more liberal than other Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter). Many of us have served missions abroad, and tend not to be too judgmental of people who come here seeking a better life. Although Mormons generally agree on many important moral issues (see below), there is no consensus on economics and the proper role of government. We all agree, for example, that we have an obligation to help the poor. However, the extent to which government should help meet their needs by taxing others is a point of contention among followers of most faiths, including ours.

2. Mormonism is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bears the name of the Christian Savior, we believe in the God of Israel, we accept the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as Scripture, we worship in chapels and temples, and we consider ourselves to be covenant Israelites. Mormons follow the Ten Commandments and are Noahides. In addition, the Abrahamic Covenant is central to our faith. Like Jews, the family is central to our faith, and our idea of heaven is to live with our spouses and families for eternity.

3. A Mormon president would not take orders from Salt Lake City.

If Mitt Romney wins, he’ll undoubtedly have the same arrangement with top church leaders that other Mormons have with local leaders: They don’t tell us how to do our jobs, and we don’t tell them how to run the church. Even Romney’s most intractable foes haven’t accused LDS church headquarters of drafting Romneycare in Massachusetts, and it’s safe to assume that church leaders aren’t behind Harry Reid’s shameful promotion of Las Vegas gambling interests in Washington. Mormons are used to looking to their leaders for spiritual advice, not professional guidance. While I would certainly expect Romney to consult with Mormon leaders as part of his general outreach efforts to faith communities (including Jewish leaders), I am confident that he will be his own man when it comes to formulating policies for the nation. I am also confident that Mormons will not be overrepresented in his administration, as Romney has a history of hiring capable people from all backgrounds to work for him.

4. On moral issues, Mormons are not extreme right-wingers.

A closer look shows the views of most Mormons on these issues to be much more nuanced. Let’s take abortion, for example. The LDS church is very much against it but does allow for possible exceptions in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s life or when the baby is not expected to survive childbirth. That’s pretty much Romney’s campaign’s abortion platform.

On gay issues, it is accurate to say that Mormons oppose state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage. However, it is both inaccurate and insulting to say that we are anti-gay. We can and do support many other issues that are important to gays. For example, former LDS Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced a Senate bill that would have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories for hate crimes. Every Mormon I know is opposed to discrimination against gays in education, employment and housing. We also support rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, probate rights, etc., so long as the integrity of the traditional family is not affected. As for theology, the LDS church teaches that homosexuality is not sinful in and of itself, as long as one remains chaste.

Although Mormons tend to have more children than the national average, our church doesn’t take a position on birth control. In addition, the church takes no position on capital punishment, stem-cell research, evolution or global warming. As a result, faithful Mormons are advocates for positions on all sides of these issues. 

5. Mormons are philo-Semites and pro-Israel. 

One of our basic Articles of Faith affirms: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes.” In 1841, LDS Apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. Israel went on to receive at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. For more than five decades (1870s-1920s), the church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine. Today, Brigham Young University has a beautiful center on Mount Scopus with the best view of the Old City in Jerusalem.

In the United States, Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived two years later, in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashanah was celebrated in Temple Square (the city center) in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. In 1903, church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the church. The second and third Jewish governors in the country were elected in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916), the two states with the highest percentage of Mormons. Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor by 1932, more than four decades before New York City.

Most Mormons in this country are very pro-Israel, and Romney is no exception. He has a close, decades-long personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to be elected to another term. If Romney is elected, Jews and Israelis can be assured that they will have a true friend in the White House.

Mark Paredes writes the Jews and Mormons blog for the Jewish Journal and is a member of the LDS church's Jewish Relations Committee for Southern California. Read the Jews and Mormons blog at

In Supreme Court’s immigration ruling, Jewish groups see progress but have concerns

Most Jewish groups who have weighed in on Arizona’s controversial immigration law saw progress in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to repeal three of the law’s four parts, but had concerns that law enforcement officials would still be allowed to check the legal immigration status of people they detain.

The high court on Monday invalidated the provisions authorizing police to arrest illegal immigrants without warrant if there was probable cause that they committed an offense that made them eligible for deportation; making it an Arizona state crime if immigrants did not carry registration papers or some sort of government identification; and forbidding immigrants unauthorized to work in the country to apply, solicit or perform work.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was among the groups that welcomed the repeals but had reservations with the court’s decision.

“Though we view the positive part of this ruling as another step in the advancement of immigrant rights—forwarded recently by President Obama’s executive order halting deportations of Dream Act eligible individuals—we remain extremely concerned about the potential for racial profiling as a result of today’s decision,” Mark Hetfield, the interim president and CEO of HIAS, said in a news statement.

The law, passed in April 2010, was meant primarily to deal with illegal immigrants coming from Mexico, according to proponents of the measure at the time of its passage. They also noted that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer had issued an executive order establishing a training program on how to avoid racial profiling when implementing the new rules.

In April, HIAS coordinated a letter to Brewer, a Republican, and also joined more than 100 other faith-based organizations and civil rights groups in submitting an amicus brief that urged the Supreme Court to strike down Arizona’s law.

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman and national chair Robert Sugarman in a news statement called the ruling a “mixed outcome.”

“One of our primary concerns has been that Arizona’s law would exacerbate fear in immigrant communities and, in particular, make victims and witnesses of hate crimes reluctant to speak with police,” they wrote.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, noted in a statement that RAC welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn most provisions in the law, but called on Arizona to urge caution on the remaining part.

“We urge Arizona and the lower courts to endorse the principle that all women, men and children deserve equal protection under the law, as appearance offers no grounds on which to assume the legal status of an individual,” Saperstein wrote. “Engaging in racial profiling only jeopardizes the safety of entire communities, as members of immigrant communities fearful of being profiled are discouraged from cooperating with law enforcement on issues.”

Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, wrote in a news statement that the high court’s ruling “is a welcome step toward ending the efforts by state legislatures to superimpose their own vindictive legislative regime on federal immigration law.”

U.S. Jewish groups condemn anti-African violence in Tel Aviv

Jewish groups called on Israel to protect African migrants in Israel after riots in Tel Aviv.

“We hope and expect that the authorities will take effective measures to protect this population from further violence and that legitimate requests by refugees to remain in Israel based on fear of persecution in their home countries will be considered humanely and with due process taking into account internationally accepted norms,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella, said in a statement on Thursday.

Wednesday night’s violent riots in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood ended with 17 arrests. The violence followed a rally against the presence of the migrants.

Africans who passed by the rally were attacked. Rioters smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants as well as other car windows. The rioters also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police, Ynet reported.

The rioters also broke into and looted shops associated with the African migrant community.

The Anti-Defamation League said it was “seriously concerned about the growing tensions in Israel over the issue of African migrants, and reports of lawlessness and violence committed by and directed against the migrants.”

“While we recognize the complexity involved in properly addressing this issue, and sympathize with Israeli citizens whose personal security has been compromised by the lawlessness and violence of some migrants, we are disturbed by inflammatory public statements made by certain Israeli officials, some of which has veered into racism,” the ADL statement said. “It is imperative that reasonable solutions be found to confront these challenges, one that humanly treats the migrants while ensuring the security concerns of Israeli citizens are properly addressed.”

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism condemned the violence.

“Such violence has no place in any civilized society, much less Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people who have throughout history known similar horrors rooted in ethnic and religious differences,” the RAC’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, said in a statement. “It is shameful that yesterday’s rally instead devolved into chaos and brutality. It is also shameful that members of the Knesset made inflammatory statements that likely contributed to an atmosphere conducive to such violence.”

All three groups welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s condemnation of the violence.

Tel Aviv protest against African migrants turns violent

A demonstration in south Tel Aviv against illegal African migrants turned violent.

More than a thousand protesters gathered Wednesday in the Hatikvah neighborhood carrying signs reading “South Tel Aviv a refugee camp” and “Infiltrators, leave our home.”

Protesters attacked African migrants who passed the demonstration, and smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants. They also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police, Ynet reported.

At least nine protesters were arrested.

Protests also were held Wednesday in Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Eilat.

Israel’s Justice Ministry announced Wednesday that migrant workers from South Sudan could be returned to their country after it is established that they are not eligible for political asylum.

More than 50,000 African migrants and asylum seekers are living in Tel Aviv alone, according to government reports. Most entered through the border with Sinai.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the surge of illegal African migrants into Israel “threatens national security and identity.” Last week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio that most African migrants in Israel are involved in criminal activity and should be imprisoned and deported to their countries of origin.

Israel, U.S. agree on immigration fast track

The United States and Israel are set to add Israelis to a fast-track immigration system.

Yediot Achronot reported Thursday that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have agreed to add Israel to the “Global Entry” program. The agreement was negotiated during a recent trip by Homeland Security officials to Israel.

For a $100 fee, frequent business travelers undergo a thorough security clearance. Once cleared, they enter the United States through a biometric fingerprint check, skipping passport checks.

According to Yediot, six countries already had joined the program—Britain, Holland, Qatar, Austria, New Zealand and Japan—and 250,000 American citizens have registered.

After Toulouse attack, French Jews are reconsidering Sarkozy

With the first round of France’s presidential election less than four weeks away, the attacks that left four Jews and three French soldiers dead are reshaping the race—but for now it’s not clear exactly how.

In the days leading up to the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy had managed to close most of the gap behind the leader in the polls, Socialist candidate Francoise Hollande, with a rightward turn that included calls by Sarkozy in favor of tougher immigration restrictions and against the labeling of halal meat.

Since the March 19 attack on the Jewish Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse, Sarkozy has announced several measures to clamp down on right-wing and Islamic extremists. He ordered French security forces to seek out Muslim extremists, barred an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric from attending a conference in France next month and urged TV networks not to air footage of the Toulouse attack and the one on soldiers in nearby Montauban that had been delivered to the Al Jazeera bureau here.

While politicians across the political spectrum condemned the attacks, Sarkozy won praise from the Jewish community for suspending his campaign and flying to Toulouse immediately after the school shooting, calling it “obviously anti-Semitic” and saying that the “whole republic” was mobilized to face the tragedy.

But it’s not clear how long the focus will remain on security before shifting back to the main issue facing France: the economy.

“The political debate will probably refocus on the fundamental economic topics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specializes in right-wing extremism. “Still, it is very important to French Jews to make the population understand that the Toulouse attack does not only concern their community but the whole country.”

French Jews, he said, “will most certainly vote for politicians with solid experience who are able to put in practice legal and credible measures to answer an Islamic threat.”

The latest national polls show Sarkozy and his center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, trailing Hollande by a percentage point or two in the first round scheduled for April 22, but by a wider gap in a theoretical runoff scheduled for May 6.

Since the Toulouse attack, the National Front, France’s largest far-right party, has tried to take advantage of the changed climate. On Sunday, party leader Marine Le Pen promised to “bring radical Islam to its knees.” In her speech Le Pen, who has been polling at approximately 15 percent, also linked mass immigration with fundamentalism and denounced the risk of a “green fascism.”

Few observers believe that many Jews will opt for the National Front, even though Le Pen has sought to woo Jewish voters and distance herself and her party from the anti-Semitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front.

“In 2002, only 6 percent of French Jews voted for the National Front, while the election occurred only a few months after 9/11,” Camus said. “A substantial movement from the Jewish community toward Marine Le Pen is very unlikely.”

The Jewish community, whose 600,000 members represent less than 1 percent of the total French population, remains more supportive of Sarkozy’s party than the general public. But prior to the Toulouse shootings, a survey of the Jewish electorate showed that Sarkozy had lost support among Jews even though he remained more popular than any other single candidate.

According to a March 9 poll from the French polling institute IFOP, Sarkozy’s favorable ratings among Jews had fallen to 43 percent as of January from 62 percent in May 2007, when Sarkozy was elected president. The main reason, said Jerome Fourquet, who directed the survey for IFOP, was France’s economy.

“The trend is similar to the French general electorate’s disaffection with Sarkozy,” Fourquet said. “People are dissatisfied with the economic situation and their purchasing power.”

For many Jews, the economy is not the only source of discontent with the president. In early March, Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, made controversial statements about halal and kosher slaughter rituals, declaring that the “ancestral traditions” in Islam and Judaism were “outdated.”

The comment provoked a strong reaction from Jewish leaders.

“As religion and state are strictly separated in France, politicians should avoid giving their opinion on these topics,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the main French umbrella organization for Jewish institutions.

More widely, French moderates also have expressed concern about Sarkozy’s tilt to the right. A week before the Toulouse shootings, Sarkozy told an audience that France has “too many foreigners” and proposed cutting legal immigration in half.

Thirty years ago, most Jews leaned toward the Socialist Party. Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist who served as president of France from 1981 to 1995, was considered a friend of Israel—an image he developed after his 1982 address to the Knesset, where he emphasized the Jewish state’s right to security.

But the Jewish vote drifted toward the UMP during the second intifada, when many leftist organizations took a pro-Palestinian stance and violence against French Jews soared.

“Violence in the Middle East had a huge impact on this community,” Fourquet said. “During the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France in the early 2000s, many Jews felt abandoned by the Socialists. This is when the center of gravity started shifting to the right for French Jews.”

Sarkozy was interior minister at the time—serving two stints from 2002 to 2007—and his tough rhetoric and the aggressive measures he championed were credited with helping tamp down the anti-Semitic violence.

When Africa Comes to Israel

There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

Post-war belt-tightening: Israel could cut Falash Mura dreams in half

Israel’s Finance Ministry is proposing substantial cuts to Ethiopian immigration next year as part of widespread belt-tightening following Israel’s war in Lebanon.

The plan, announced on Sept. 5 as part of Israel’s proposed budget for 2007, would halve the number of Ethiopian immigrants brought to Israel per month, to 150 from the current rate of 300.

If adopted, the change would represent a major setback to U.S. backers of Ethiopian aliyah, who launched a $100 million campaign last year designed in part to pressure the government to increase the rate of Ethiopian immigration. Israel’s Cabinet decided in March 2005 to double the rate of Ethiopian immigration to 600 people per month, but the decision was never implemented.

“I hope the Jewish leaders overseas will understand this breaks all the rules, all the agreements, all the understandings,” said Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian-Israeli politician and head of the World Zionist Organization’s department of Zionist issues. “We won’t let this happen. It’s a scandal.”

The proposal to slash Ethiopian immigration signals the failure of a complex agreement reached a year and a half ago to complete mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

That agreement would have seen the takeover of Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the end of lobbying campaigns for immigration by the main Jewish advocacy group in Ethiopia and the raising of more than $100 million by North American Jews to help Israel foot the bill for the airlift and absorption of up to 20,000 additional Ethiopians.

The collaborative effort was intended to bring the mass Ethiopian aliyah to a close in under three years.

Now it seems the estimated 12,000 remaining Ethiopian petitioners for aliyah — known as Falash Mura — will have to wait even longer in shantytowns in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa before they can emigrate to the Jewish state, if at all.

“I think it’s morally reprehensible,” Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said of the proposed budget cuts. “We’re going to obviously ask the government not to go in that direction.”

The Israeli government repeatedly has delayed implementing the decision to accelerate the aliyah, with various ministries shifting the blame. Under the current budget proposal, an increase in the aliyah rate wouldn’t be reconsidered until the 2008 budget discussions.

Last year, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group of North American federations launched a campaign called Operation Promise to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and motivate the Israeli government to move ahead with its March 2005 decision.

The UJC raised about half of the amount before the campaign stalled and was overshadowed this summer by special emergency fundraising for the war with Hezbollah.

“Even considering a cut from the current level of 300 a month would be unacceptable,” said Howard Reiger, UJC’s president and CEO. “UJC and the federations will continue their partnership with the government to help populations most in need, including the Falash Mura. We hope and expect that the government of Israel will keep its commitments in this regard as well.”

Some U.S. Jewish leaders say they’re not sure whether the proposed slash in the Ethiopian immigration budget is a legitimate cutback resulting from the war or just an excuse to avoid bringing more Ethiopians to Israel.

One federation official said he’s beginning to doubt Israel’s commitment to accepting the Falash Mura as immigrants.

“I think there will be great skepticism that this is not about something beyond money,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “I think many of us are aware of the complexity and costs involved, but the signal that will be sent if the number is in fact reduced will, in my judgment, weaken the partnership with world Jewry.”

“Every prime minister has said to us over and over again that the issue of aliyah is a No. 1 priority,” Ruskay said. “The rabbinate has indicated that these are Jews. Ultimately, this is an issue in the hands of the Israeli public and the Israeli political system.”

The government’s reticence to bring the Falash Mura to Israel has been both economic and ideological — and, some charge, racist.

Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. The Ethiopians are considered far more expensive than other immigrants, since the background they’re coming from is so different than Israel, and they need extensive support services after immigrating.

Many Israelis also doubt the Falash Mura’s Jewish credentials, despite their being classified as Jews by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the three major religious denominations of American Judaism.

The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Now they have begun returning to Judaism — in order to immigrate to the Jewish state along with their extended families, some charge.

Given the state of record-keeping in Ethiopia, the Falash Mura’s Jewish pedigree is virtually impossible to prove. Unlike Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, the Falash Mura have not continuously maintained Jewish traditions and practice, so Israel has been accepting only those Falash Mura who can demonstrate a familial connection with Ethiopians already in Israel. Some of those now coming to Israel have no claims to Jewish heritage at all and are linked to descendants of Jews only by marriage.

It’s not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, though aid officials say the number is probably not more than 12,000.

The longer it takes Israel to bring the current group of Falash Mura, the more petitioners for aliyah there will be, warn Israeli and American Jewish officials stationed in Ethiopia.

From Agony to Acceptance — Documentary Delves Into Intermarriage

When Holocaust survivor Leah Welbel learns that her American granddaughter is about to marry a Christian, she cries out, “When this happened in my old hometown, my family used to sit shiva. Here they expect me to open my arms. I can’t do it.”

Leah’s agony in the documentary, “Out of Faith,” is deeply rooted in the memory of her 33 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the same dilemma of rejection or acceptance is faced by other American Jewish families, half of whose children and grandchildren opt for interfaith marriages.

The film, which will have a special screening on Sept. 12 at the Laemmle Sunset, is rich in the human drama of family relationships and sharpened by the Holocaust experience, while tracing the trajectory of the American arc from immigration to assimilation.

Leah, deported from her Slovakian hometown at age 16 and in her mid-70s when the film was made, is the classic indomitable Jewish matriarch. Voluble, feisty, humorous, a born survivor, she ably made her way, first in Israel and then in Skokie, Ill.

She taught herself the intricacies of the stock market and prospered, even as she continued to labor over her gastronomic specialty, potato sandwiches. And she hasn’t spoken to her grandson, Danny, in six years, since he married a non-Jew.

Now her granddaughter, Cheryl, has announced that she will marry Matt, a Christian, and Leah tries a different tack. If she pushes Cheryl hard enough, Leah figures, maybe the new bride can persuade Matt to convert to Judaism.

Though raised in an Orthodox home, Leah is not particularly observant, not even lighting candles on Friday evenings. But by allowing her grandchildren to marry non-Jews, she insists, “I feel like a traitor … we’re finishing the job Hitler started. We’ll become extinct like the Mayas.”

Always in the background hovers her older husband, his eyes alternately dead or haunted, who worked in a Sonderkommando shoveling Jewish corpses into the crematorium. He says little but wonders, “Where was God in Auschwitz?”

Leah’s son, Michael, also married a Christian, but his wife, Betty, converted to Judaism. Not an unmixed blessing, Michael observes, since “she became more Jewish than we are. We had to reel her back in.”

A friend has a different attitude.

“If I didn’t let my son marry a Catholic, I would have lost a son,” she says.The different viewpoints toward intermarriage are reflected by the film’s producer, L. Mark DeAngelis, and director Lisa Leeman.

DeAngelis, a 36-year-old Chicago lawyer, businessman and now founder of Eliezer Films, grew up in a secular home. When Leah, a family friend, invited him to accompany her on a trip to Auschwitz some five years ago, he accepted and found both a subject for his film and a new attachment to Judaism.

“I started wondering why, when I dated a non-Jewish girl, it bothered me, which seemed almost like a racist thought at the time,” he said in a phone interview.DeAngelis has no doubt about his viewpoint now. “If our community is to have a future in this country, Jews must marry Jews. Only that way will their kids have a shot at staying Jewish,” he said.

He is now launching an outreach campaign, “Keep the Faith.”

Leeman, a veteran Los Angeles filmmaker and editor, represents, in her words, “the classic American story of assimilation.”

Her father, she said, was “a New York Jew,” her mother, a Protestant of Scandinavian descent from Idaho. Neither parent was religious and Leeman thought little about her identity until she attended a meeting of the Conference of Christians and Jews.

“At some point, participants were asked to divide into Jewish and Christian groups, and instinctively I chose the Jewish one,” Leeman said.

As the product of an interfaith marriage, Leeman has a tolerant — or ambivalent — attitude on the topic.

“I can understand that any ethnic group, Jewish, Chinese or Mexican, wants to pass on its culture and heritage to future generations,” she said. “But are they willing to do it at the price of family strife and estrangement?”

The web magazine,, interacts with about 20,000 Jewish visitors a month, says managing editor Micah Sachs. The webzine is not a professional counseling service, and most questions are referred to a hometown list of rabbis and social workers.

Yet, over time, Sachs and his colleagues have accumulated some pragmatic suggestions, particularly for parents struggling with a child’s interfaith relationship or marriage.

  • Your child is not rejecting you but making a personal choice.
  • Opposing or condemning your child’s love for a non-Jew is almost always counter-productive. While parents should not hesitate to stress their own attachment to Judaism, understanding and welcoming a non-Jewish partner works out better in the long run.
  • Do not insist that the non-Jewish partner convert to Judaism, unless it’s his or her own decision.
  • Your situation is not unique. Depending on the definition of who is a Jew, slightly more or slightly less than 50 percent of Jewish newlyweds between 1995-2000 married non-Jewish partners. Some 33 percent of these mixed households raised their children as Jewish. However, in families with two Jewish spouses, 96 percent raised Jewish children, according to the National Jewish Populations Survey.

“Out of Faith” will screen at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 12, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatre, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, to be followed by a discussion between the audience and the filmmakers.

Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested. For information, contact Kim Fishman at (310) 907-5852, or e-mail For background on the film, go to more information on “Out of Faith,” visit,

Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights

I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.


Presbyterian Church Fixes Divestment Damage
Two years after it angered Jews by passing a resolution calling for divestment from Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is trying to undo the damage.

At this year’s General Assembly in Birmingham, a church committee agreed Saturday night to ask the full assembly to replace its 2004 resolution calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” with a policy of “corporate engagement” that would restrict investments in Israel, the Gaza Strip and West Bank to peaceful pursuits. The full assembly was to vote on the resolution Wednesday.

The committee overwhelmingly agreed to the motion after days of deliberation in which it held open hearings and heard dozens of proposals.

Although the resolution does not formally rescind divestment, most took it to mean that the drive toward divestment had been stopped, and that the call for “corporate engagement” shows a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution approved by the church’s peacemaking and international issues committee:

  • Calls on the church to restrict its investments that relate to Israel, Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank to peaceful pursuits;
  • Urges peaceful cooperation among Israelis, Americans and Palestinians, and Jews, Muslims and Christians;
  • Calls for dismantling Israel’s West Bank security barrier where it ventures beyond the pre-1967 boundary;
  • Aims to submit these proposals to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian politicians and religious leaders.

Klimt Paintings to Leave LACMA
Los Angeles’ loss is New York’s gain, with the sale by local resident Maria Altmann of an iconic Gustav Klimt painting to the Big Apple’s Neue Galerie, owned by Jewish cosmetics heir and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.

The gold-flecked 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt, was sold for a reported $135 million, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.

In addition to the portrait, four other Klimt paintings were recently returned to Altmann and her family by the Austrian government, after a seven-year legal and diplomatic battle waged by Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

The art works were seized from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis, after their takeover of Austria in 1938.

Sale of the “Golden Adele” is a cultural blow for Los Angeles, and especially the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), which is currently exhibiting all five Klimt paintings.

LACMA tried hard to keep the collection intact and permanently on home grounds, but was unable to come up with the necessary funds.

Altmann, a lively 90-year-old Cheviot Hills resident, is now planning a trip to Europe with her grandchildren, but doesn’t plan to change her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the house where I’ve lived for 30 years, keep driving my ’92 Ford, and I don’t need any new clothing,” she told The Journal in an interview earlier this year.

Angelenos have one more week to view the Klimt collection at the LACMA exhibit, which closes June 30. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Ethiopian Immigration to Israel to Remain Flat?
An Israeli ministerial committee recommended that the government postpone a decision to double the number of Falash Mura allowed into Israel from Ethiopia. The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity and who are now returning to Judaism. The government decided several years ago to increase the number allowed into Israel each month, from 300 to 600. However, the decision was never implemented, and the committee said the move should be postponed further because of financial considerations. The recommendation comes as Israel’s High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition next week on the government’s failure to expedite the aliyah.

Reform Movement Center Opens in Jaffa
The Reform movement in Israel inaugurated a $12 million cultural center in Jaffa on Sunday. The facility, to be opened officially in October, will be called Mishkenot Daniel. The decision to put it in Jaffa was part of the movement’s efforts to reach out to middle- and working-class families in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The inauguration coincided with the first annual convention of the Association of Reform Zionists in Israel to be held in the Jewish state. The center is to include a youth hostel, auditorium, classrooms and a synagogue. Some prominent American Jews have donated to its building, and Israeli Reform movement officials hope local Reform congregants will help raise additional funds for the complex.

Israel Expands Residency Law
Israel expanded a law granting residency to children of non-Jewish foreign workers. On Sunday, the Cabinet approved a proposal by Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On to ease the minimum age requirement for children whose parents work legally in Israel and who want to become citizens themselves. Previously, only children who were born in Israel or arrived before age 10 were eligible, but the bar has now been raised to 14. Other requirements for candidates are that they speak Hebrew and have lived in Israel for at least six years. After completing mandatory military service, they will become eligible for citizenship. The amendment was opposed by Cabinet ministers from the Shas Party, which said it would threaten Israel’s demographic balance. But Bar-On argued that it applied to only a few-hundred potential candidates.

Kosher Restaurant to Open in Turkey
Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that Silence Park, a new holiday resort to be launched in the city of Antalya next month, includes a glatt kosher restaurant, the first in Turkey. The restaurant will serve both meat and dairy meals, using both local fare and products imported from Israel. Antalya is especially popular with Israeli vacationers given its geographical proximity and cheap prices.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.



Kobe Jewish?

The story regarding Kobe Bryant saying that he “wouldn’t mind” being Jewish was pointless and inane. An off-the-cuff remark all of a sudden becomes a possibility in the minds some people. In addition, the story was filled with inaccuracies as to the number of Jewish athletes in the major sports.

On opening day there were 10 Jews on Major League rosters this season (13 played last year), the NFl had seven Jews on the gridiron last seaso and the NHL started with four Jews on the ice this season.

Ephraim A. Moxson
Jewish Sports Review

The “Real Plague”

While the contemporizing of the Ten Plagues (in Hebrew) was a neat idea, the inclusion of Jack Abramoff in the company of Osama bin Laden, Hamas and the Iranian Ahmadinejad, the new Hitler, was not only offensive and stupid, but betrayed the real 10th plague: Moral Equivalency, the same philosophy that has de-legitimated Israel, by equating Palestinian homicide bombers with Israeli citizens and defense forces; the same philosophy that refers to terrorists as “militants,” “insurgents” and “activists.” (Modern Causes Add Meaning to Seder,” April 7) Perhaps the genocide in Sudan or the oncoming avian flu might have been better candidates.

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles


Kudos to Joe Hicks for emphasizing that there is nothing illiberal about distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration (“Border Protests Not Fight for Civil Rights,” April 7).

Paul Kujawsky
Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles

Jews for Jesus

Unfortunately, David Klinghoffer did not take the time to learn about the Reform movement’s position before writing that “the Reform movement agrees with Jews for Jesus in affirming patrilineal descent” (“A Tenuous Claim as a Jew for Jesus,” March 31). In fact, the Reform movement’s policy states that a person with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother may be considered Jewish only when confirmed “through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” (CCAR, 1983) No learned Jew — Conservative, Orthodox or Reform — would consider David Brickner (who publicly proclaims his faith in Jesus) a Jew.

Klinghoffer also fails to understand the nature of patrilineal vs. matrilineal descent in Jewish tradition. First, he is simply wrong about the history. Contrary to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s assertion, both the Torah and the sages of the Talmud were very clear that lineage is traced through the father (see Numbers 1:2 and Bava Batra 109b). Just as importantly, the Reform movement has decided that it was offensive to exclude the children from half of mixed-marriages simply due to the gender of their Jewish parent.

Jews for Jesus is a dangerous, deceptive organization that preys upon our least knowledgeable Jews. They are outside the pale of anything Jewish. Patrilineal descent, on the other hand, is both an important link to our tradition and a vital step towards inclusion and the long-term health of our Jewish community.

Mark Miller
Los Angeles

Derisive Impression

Alice Ollstein’s comments (“Propaganda for the Insipid,” March 31) about the annual AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference were insensitive and profoundly na?ve. The fact that the Jewish community has nurtured and grown AIPAC into the vibrant and effective organization it is today is nothing short of a miracle. To be able to garner the respect, attention and participation from the nations’ highest ranking governmental leaders regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship is something the Jewish community can never take for granted.

During this year’s conference, as always, AIPAC meticulously showcased both Democratic and Republican voices in each segment of the program, contrary to Ollstein’s statement. Also, if she cannot draw a parallel between the vitriolic words of Hitler and Iranian President Ahmadinejad, let the rest of us not be in denial.

It is clear that America could have saved countless lives during World War II, but American Jews did not have the political influence at that time. Imagine the world with a vital AIPAC prior to the Holocaust — how many lives could have been spared. So let’s remain hopeful that other high school students will join the ranks of AIPAC, defending the U.S.-Israel relationship and protecting the safety of future generations.

Donna Bender

Al Franken

Once again Al Franken resorts to lies and distortions when he quipped, “The last time I saw that many angry Mexicans, the United States had invaded Mexico and was fighting Santa Ana, looking for weapons of mass destruction.” (“Sectarian Violence,” March 31).

It was Santa Ana who killed every Texan soldier in the Battle of the Alamo when Texans (including many Mexicans living in Texas) sought freedom and cessation from Mexico. And it was Texans who sought American statehood. Franken and his ilk profess to love America, but their deeds of besmirching our history and our leaders prove otherwise. Far from being proud Americans, they are the enemy from within. Kudos to Ann Coulter for taking him on.

Shari Goodman


Jewish Groups Take Pro-Immigrant Stand

You didn’t see many Jews amid the sea of Mexican and American flags during the recent pro-immigrant rallies that filled city streets, but Jews and Jewish groups, in largely liberal Los Angeles, have been advocating on behalf of immigrants, mostly outside the view of television cameras.

Among local Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been leading the way: Its regional branch has been developing and disseminating a pro-immigrant resolution for roughly six months. The resulting declaration, recently approved by the Pacific Southwest Region of the ADL, calls for humane treatment of illegal immigrants, while also accepting the need for “security precautions … necessary to protect the integrity of the United States border and the well-being of the American people.”

Sixteen local civil rights organizations and the Catholic church have signed on to the declaration, said Amanda Susskind, regional director of ADL. The declaration has been forwarded to L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, with the hope that the City Council, too, will endorse the nonbinding resolution. Signatories hope the declaration will work its way to other cities and to the state Legislature as well.

The ADL declaration is intentionally short on specifics. It does not get into details about the number of years or days per year an undocumented immigrant should work to get resident status or whether or not illegal immigrants should be required to learn English or submit to a criminal background check. Instead, the declaration condemns in broad terms “xenophobia and anti-immigrant bias as having no place in United States’ immigration policy” and also proposes the monitoring of extremist groups.

Other local Jewish organizations also have taken a pro-immigration stance, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). Two rabbis affiliated with the organization were part of a delegation of clergy who recently spoke to congressmen in Washington to “present a moral agenda,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

A signatory to the ADL declaration, the alliance “takes the position further,” said Sokatch, urging community leaders “to take a stand substantially similar to Cardinal [Roger] Mahony’s.”

Mahony has spoken out adamantly against House and Senate bills that would define illegal immigration as a felony and would also criminalize the actions of those organizations and people who help these immigrants.

Sokatch says that the PJA would advocate civil disobedience against such provisions, which are part of legislation proposed by Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

“Any law that would cater to the worst, xenophobic elements,” Sokatch saus, “would require us to civilly disobey the law.”

Sokatch said that he did not attend the March 25 “Gran Marcha” because it was Shabbat, but he and his two daughters did attend another rally at UCLA, which included many non-Latinos, some Jews presumably among them.

The local branch of the American Jewish Congress also signed the ADL declaration. The national organization was expected to consider its own resolution on immigration at its national board meeting this week. Executive Director Neil Goldstein said that his organization is “strongly in favor of border controls,” but prefers the more pro-immigrant approach of legislation developed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The historic position of Jews is that we are an immigrant people,” Goldstein says. “We support the idea of immigrants coming to America balanced with respect for the law and our border.”

Another local signatory to the ADL declaration is the legal aid group Bet Tzedek, which represents Latino immigrants through its employment-rights project. The organization aims to prevent discrimination against immigrants “whether they’re documented or not,” Bet Tzedek Executive Director Mitchell Kamin said.

An individual on the frontlines of a walkout was teacher Steve Zimmer, who runs intervention programs at Marshall High School. Zimmer, who is Jewish, marched with students to act as a “buffer” between the police and students. At the beginning of the day, he had no idea that he would end up walking with the students all the way from Silver Lake to City Hall, adding that he wore “wing tips much to my chagrin.”

Once the Marshall marchers, the vast majority of them Latino, reached the crest on Spring Street, they saw thousands of other students — estimates put the total at 40,000 — some from as far away as the San Gabriel Valley. Zimmer characterized the moment when his students spotted their peers as “jubilant.” Zimmer, who knows City Council President Garcetti, prevailed upon Garcetti to talk to the teens. Later, as widely reported, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke to them as well.

The leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles, the L.A. Unified teachers union, has passed a motion calling on teachers to have conversations with their students on immigration and to support students’ constitutional rights. The motion was proposed by Andy Griggs, who is Jewish, and it passed overwhelmingly, UTLA Treasurer David Goldberg said.

“We want to make sure students are safe and don’t get beat up,” Goldberg said.

‘350’ Exhibit Spends Winter at the Skirball

In 1927, a popular duo called The Happiness Boys had a hit song called, “Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me,” which lampooned the car magnet’s supposed contrition for the anti-Semitic content of his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.

Its catchy lyrics proclaimed:

“I was sad and I was blue,

But now I’m just as good as you,

Since Henry Ford apologized to me!”

A recording of that song is among the finds that will be on display in “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” which opens Nov. 10 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The exhibit traces American Jewish history — from the 1654 arrival of 23 Sephardic refugees in New York through the 19th century’s waves of Jewish immigration to a typed Phillip Roth manuscript and Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler.

The 250 photographs, documents and artifacts showcase Jewish life in a country that has been free of pogroms and still values religious plurality. The Skirball exhibit caps a year of “350” commemorations across the United States.

“From Haven to Home” starts the American Jewish story in September 1654, when 23 Jews fled Brazil and landed in New Amsterdam harbor (now New York City), with those Jews granted trade and travel rights the following year. The exhibit’s march of time continues with an 1818 letter from Thomas Jefferson to influential Jewish American Mordecai Noah and also a copy of a copy of George Washington’s famed 1790, “to bigotry no sanction” letter, sent to the Jews of Newport, R.I.

Among the Civil War Judaica is: A Confederate two-dollar bill bearing the face of Judah Benjamin — a U.S. senator who defected to become one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ Cabinet members — and Abraham Lincoln’s note rescinding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army order expelling Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. The exhibit also shows an 1876 receipt for a $10 contribution to Washington, D.C.,’s first synagogue, which was made by Grant while he was president.

From 1889, the Skirball has a Torah binder from rural German Jewish settlers in the Rocky Mountains.

“It shows that not only did German Jews immigrate to the cities, but also settled throughout the land,” said Michael Grunberger, head of the Hebraic section at the Library of Congress, which hosted the original “From Haven to Home” exhibition last fall in Washington.

More established Jewish communities speak through the Skirball exhibit’s 1879 invitation to a Hebrew charity ball and an 1881 invitation to a Purim “fancy dress ball.” The immigrant experience includes such items as Harry Houdini’s 1913 passport application and Albert Einstein’s 1936 Declaration of Intention statement to U.S. immigration officials.

“From Haven to Home” also features a display of Jewish American posters. A 1917 color poster advertises English-language classes for Ohio’s Jewish immigrants, bearing the headline, “Cleveland — Many Peoples, One Language.”

A circa 1940s United Jewish Appeal lithograph seeks aid for Jewish refugees. Its Hebrew script reads: “Their fight is our fight.” Ben Shahn’s 1946 marching-in-the-streets poster encourages voter registration.

The exhibit’s view of modern American Jewish life includes a handwritten 1961 seder guest list; a Yiddish translation of the Dr. Seuss classic, “The Cat in the Hat” (“Di Kats der Payats”); the eye-catching 2000 presidential campaign button, “Gore/ Lieberman in 5761,” and the 20-something magazine, Heeb: The New Jew Review.

Along with most of the items found in the original Library of Congress exhibit, the Skirball exhibit will have 25 new items not displayed in Washington last fall, including a copy of Al Jolson’s sheet music for the tune, “California Here I Come.”

Since last September and for much of this year, Jewish organizations nationwide have celebrated the 350th anniversary. Versions of the “From Haven to Home” exhibit have made stops in Cincinnati and Boston.

“Our version of the exhibition is the closest to the Library of Congress,” said Skirball senior curator Grace Cohen Grossman. “This is the culminating exhibition.”

Three years in the making, “From Haven to Home” became the largest Library of Congress display presenting its American Jewish cultural artifacts, with the Skirball being the exhibit’s largest outside provider of items.

Both in its Skirball and Library of Congress incarnations, the exhibit has sought to capture the evolving quality of Jewish culture’s uniquely American experience. Fittingly, the last item in Skirball’s gallery space will be a 1968 TV clip showing Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts with composer Irving Berlin, all singing his classic, “God Bless America.”

“From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” will run Nov. 10 to Feb. 12, 2006, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition will be open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays 12-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 12-9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission will be $8 general, $6 seniors and students, free on Thursdays. For more information call (310) 440-4500 or visit

A Rhythmic Spin on Boyle Heights’ History

Choreographer Heidi Duckler drove around Boyle Heights one day, in search of her next project and “feeling that my heart was in this community.” Suddenly, she saw a building with a striking dome and “I just knew it had to be a synagogue,” she recalls.

Sure enough, Duckler had stumbled upon a community center called the Casa del Mexicano, a former synagogue from 1914 until 1930, when it became the property of the Mexican Consulate.

“This building has been used for so many things,” she says. “It’s a survivor that adapts to its community.”

Called “the reigning queen of site-specific dance performance” by the Los Angeles Times, Duckler brought her dancers to the Casa del Mexicano and began to develop “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge.” The latest project by Duckler’s Collage Dance Theatre and titled after the talmudic adage, the dance, which premieres in early October, explores the unique history of Boyle Heights, while addressing the more universal issues of immigration and demographic shifts in communities.

With more than 40 works in her 20-year-old company’s repertory, Duckler has been a prominent choreographic force in Los Angeles, which according to the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, houses more than 100 nonprofit dance companies. And while certainly smaller than what’s found in New York, the L.A. modern dance scene continues to grow. On a fairly regular basis, both local and visiting choreographers show their work at venues like Highways, Electric Lodge or at the cutting edge Redcat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Upcoming performances range from the fifth annual SOLA Contemporary Dance Festival in Torrance Nov. 4-7 to the acclaimed Montreal-based modern troupe, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, at Royce Hall Oct. 7-8.

Opportunities to view Jewish-themed dance by contemporary choreographers, however, do not occur every day and, in the case of Duckler, “Narrow Bridge” represents the first time she has explored issues of Jewish identity.

“The idea behind this piece is that often, when there’s a constant flow of immigration, no one remembers the history of who came here first and how did they arrive there,” she says over coffee at a Brentwood cafe. “Also, it’s a tribute to Boyle Heights, which I find so colorful. There’s the Hispanic community and remnants of this Jewish community, and if you talk to the old timers who live there they all remember things differently.”

Though Duckler interviewed longtime Boyle Heights denizens, including residents of a nursing home and consulted various books, old maps and Jewish scholars, she could not find further clues to Casa’s history.

“We know that the building was originally supposed to be a church but no one knows how it became a synagogue,” she says. “It’s a real mystery.”

Performed earlier this summer as a work-in-progress, “Narrow Bridge” featured dancers who are initially dressed like Chasidim as they leap over each other’s backs, roll on the floor and perform the more classic gestures of Jewish prayer, like beating the chest and swaying while standing. Later, they add colorful Mexican belts that punctuated their dark outfits and they pay more attention to the rope bridge in the center of the room. Three dancers hurl themselves over to one side of the bridge. One dancer lingers behind. Another dancer hangs upside down from the bridge. Meanwhile, a dignified couple in traditional Mexican costume start to waltz.

The dance also features music by Robert Een that is performed by a Mariachi band and draws upon both Latin and klezmer influences, while the audience is encouraged to participate in a responsive reading. Duckler’s still not sure where the audience will sit.

“We haven’t finished exploring the building,” she says. “What’s key to the process is that the dancers come into the space and they start to get physical with it. I tell them to leap off the stage, test the strength of the balcony. The movement comes from integrating into the environment of the space.”

Duckler, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and did plenty of ballet as a child, eschewed the idea of a conventional dance career early on.

“Dance was my medium but I couldn’t relate to a lot of it,” she says of her college experiences as a student at Reed College and the University of Oregon. “I wasn’t into looking at myself in the mirror or performing in little black box theaters. That seemed so confining.”

Interested in pop culture and the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Duckler, who received a masters in dance from UCLA, knew she wanted to create the type of dance that forged a connection with the outside world. Her first work, “Laundromatinee,” took place at a Santa Monica Laundromat and dancers spun in dryers and dove into washing machines as they explored the plight of the housewife. The venues of her ensuing works have ranged from the Los Angeles River to an automotive repair shop to the Ambassador Hotel.

“My work is never about just lyrical abstraction,” Duckler says. “I’m always looking at a greater story, whether it’s psychological, cultural or political.”

Duckler maintains “it’s serendipitous” that she’s presently dealing with Jewish themes. Yet, “I’ve already explored my other identities, such as being a wife or artist,” she observes. “I guess it was time to deal with the Jewish one.”

Collage Dance Theatre performs “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge” Oct. 7-9 and 20-23 at the Casa del Mexicano, 2900 Calle Pedro Infante, Boyle Heights. Fri. and Sat. 7 and 9 p.m.; and Sun. at 7 p.m. Special benefit on Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$40. For information, visit


Twenty-Nine Days to Make Mitzvot

Aryeh Green and Yosef Abramowitz were sipping tea in a Bedouin tent last year in Sde Boker, a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev desert, when they had an idea.

Participants at a conference of Kol Dor, an organization that seeks to revitalize Jewish activism and unity across the globe, the two were discussing how the group could promote Jewish identity and peoplehood.

“Most Jewish institutions and endeavors are out of touch with the next generation of Jews because of a lack of relevance,” Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family and Life (JFL), which publishes several Jewish Web sites and magazines, told JTA. “But we do know that the idealism and the desire to contribute to the world” are predominant.

It occurred to them that a month in the Jewish calendar formally dedicated to social action would be an ideal means of mobilizing and inspiring the Jewish community.

Their initiative received a major boost this week when the Knesset’s Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs proclaimed the Jewish month of Cheshvan, which falls in November this year, as Social Action Month.

According to Green, who serves as an adviser to former Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, “We agreed that if we wanted Kol Dor to succeed, we would have to focus on practical, tangible contributions.”

“What makes this initiative interesting and unique is that it harnesses the power of different social action and Jewish organizations to get involved,” Green said.

The goal is not to spearhead specific projects, but to “pull together the existing frameworks of social action.”

The effort has garnered the support of various Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Israel Defense Forces’ education branch and the World Union of Jewish Students.

Abramowitz said Labor Party legislator Colette Avital, who chairs the Knesset’s Immigration Committee, has sent a letter to various Jewish organizations expressing support.

Jewish schools in Israel and the Diaspora will be a particular focus of the initiative. According to Abramowitz, Social Action Month will receive special attention in the BabagaNewz, a monthly magazine on Jewish values that JFL publishes for elementary school students. The magazine serves 1,400 Jewish schools and has a circulation of more than 40,000.

The JFL journal, Sh’ma, and magazine, JVibe, also intend to publish features on the subject, he said.

Abramowitz said Cheshvan was selected for the project because it immediately follows the High Holidays, which usually spur higher levels of Jewish observance.

The Knesset decision also represents a victory for Kol Dor, whose philosophy formed the ideological foundation for Social Action Month.

“The paradigm that we are advocating in Jewish life is that peoplehood is a central mobilizing force,” Abramowitz said, citing the success of the movement to rescue Soviet Jewry as one example.

The group seeks to use the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, as a unifying theme.

The Answer Isn’t…

Aliyah is the oat bran of the Jewish people. We know it’s good for us. We know we should be having more of it. But truth is, we just find it hard to swallow. And we certainly don’t like it shoved down our throats.

While in Israel last week, I heard several Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on down, proclaim that increased Jewish immigration to Israel is crucial to the country’s long-term well-being. And each time I heard an Israeli or American Jewish leader say that, I thought: “Uh-oh.”

If Israel’s well-being depends on tens of thousands of us Diaspora Jews packing up and moving there, the country is in worse trouble than I thought. The numbers of Jews who immigrate to Israel from Western nations — never a very large figure — has greatly declined of late and shows no signs of reviving.

“Where are they going to come from?” an Israeli official — who preferred not to be identified — asked me. “The ones who had to come here came; the ones who wanted to come here came. There just aren’t that many Jews left to rescue. And even the ones who are in trouble don’t want to come here.”

Aliyah from Western countries has never been huge. Israel’s numbers have swelled more as a result of what analysts call the “push” immigration — Jews who have been pushed out of the homelands — rather than from “pull” — Jews who feel drawn to Israel not out of need, but desire.

About 9,200 immigrants arrived in Israel in the first half of 2003, and most of these were pushed there. Over half — 5,100 immigrants — came from the former Soviet Union, 500 arrived from Argentina and 1,500 from Ethiopia. That means approximately 2,100 arrived from the rest of the Jewish world: France, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and the United States.

These numbers represent a drop of 39 percent, as compared to the same period the previous year. Although many Orthodox Jews and yeshiva students still immigrate to Israel, aliyah from North America is half of what it was in 1984, prior to the outbreak of the first intifada or Palestinian uprising.

The aliyah equation is even more lopsided, especially when balanced against emigration from Israel. Many Jews from the former Soviet Union have actually chosen to return there. Israelis who have any native rights in European countries are seeking passports for themselves and their children.

Last week, an article in Ha’aretz revealed that about 700,000 Israelis actually live outside the country. An earlier survey found that a significant proportion of Israeli youth saw little future for themselves in Israel. A friend of mine, who immigrated to Israel more than 20 years ago from the United States and raised his children there, said he suspects all of his kids will immigrate to America.

Behind the call for a magic carpet of aliyah lay an odd mixture of hope and despair. Aliyah is — excuse the expression — the Hail Mary strategy of an Israeli government that sees no other way out of a looming demographic disaster.

Sharon’s government has advanced no serious long-term strategy for dealing with the fact that within several years, the Palestinian population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will outnumber the Jewish population. For years, Israelis on the center and the left have pointed out that when this happens, Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish State or being a democratic one.

One solution is for Israel to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and return to (roughly) its pre-1967 borders. Another is bringing in more Jews. As ludicrous as it seems given the numbers, that’s the only solution advanced by Sharon in a speech last week to some 5,000 North American Jewish supporters of Israel.

The fact that Sharon’s call for aliyah received a sustained ovation perplexed me. After the speech, I asked various audience members if they planned to take up the prime minister’s call and move to Israel. Of course they thought I was joking.

“Remember the old saying,” a journalist friend reminded me. “An American Zionist is someone who gives his own money to send someone else’s kid to Israel.”

The situation in Israel is grave. The economy is depressed, security is tight and most Israelis I met were gloomy about their country in the short-term, at least. Anti-Semitism abroad may yet create a wave of “push” aliyah to Israel, but it’s not something you want to depend upon.

“It would be preferable if the Israeli society were to flourish thanks to its own power of attraction and not because of the existential weakness of Diaspora Jewry,” said professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Aliyah is identity politics carried to the extreme. The small percentage of Jews who are actually pulled to live in Israel represents a much larger percentage of Jews who choose not to live in Israel, but who feel close and supportive of it nonetheless. I suspect the decline in one number reflects a decline in the other. As Israel’s own existential situation worsens, both these numbers are bound to deteriorate.

On the way home from Israel late last week, I noticed a counter set up at Ben-Gurion International Airport. A charming American-born woman stood behind an array of informational pamphlets on aliyah. Don’t just visit the dream, the booth advertised, come live it.

I couldn’t help notice that in the three hours I spent in the busy terminal, not a single person visited the woman at her booth. The duty-free counter, needless to say, was packed.