Activists gather at Portland International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Steve Dipaola

Trump order flouts American principles


Like most Jews whose family history features flights from persecution, I have a soft spot for refugees, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” welcomed to our shores by Emma Lazarus’ famous poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But there have always been those who felt differently.

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order suspending the State Department’s Refugee Assistance Program and restricting visa entry from seven Muslim-majority countries is one in a long line of racist, anti-immigrant measures, from the Naturalization Act of 1790 (limiting naturalization to whites) and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (prohibiting Chinese laborers) to the Immigration Act of 1924 (enacting national origin quotas to reduce the number of Jews and Italians, and exclude Arabs and Asians), which have influenced our immigration policies up to the present day. As President Harry S. Truman said in vetoing the similarly problematic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.” Congress overrode his veto. President John F. Kennedy was so disturbed by the racist and discriminatory nature of our immigration laws that he even wrote a book about it, “A Nation of Immigrants,” in which he warned that “emotions of xenophobia — hatred of foreigners — and of nativism — the policy of keeping America ‘pure’ … continue to thrive.”

Trump campaigned largely on xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Latinos, Asians and Muslims, here and abroad. For example, on Nov. 6, just days before the election, he called the community of 25,000 Somali refugees in Minnesota a “disaster,” and promised not to admit more refugees without the approval of the community. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new president used his broad executive authority to stop admitting refugees and restrict entry to the United States by individuals from countries like Somalia, which he believes may be sources of radical Islamic terrorism. I expect there will be many more of these types of orders in the days to come, and, in my view, the president likely will succeed in implementing these policies.

To be sure, Trump’s first executive order on immigration has caused a great outcry, even among those who generally support strong anti-terrorism efforts, mainly because it was so poorly conceived and executed. In just the first days, hundreds of travelers were caught in limbo, and attorneys working over the weekend obtained a temporary stay of certain elements of the order, some of which, like the refusal of entry to valid green card holders, may have already been retracted by the administration. There seem to be no exceptions made for properly vetted visitors, including students or scientists attending conferences on tourist visas, or even people who have assisted our armed forces. No doubt there will be protracted litigation over some of the more objectionable parts of the order, such as the instruction to prioritize refugee claims made by members of “a minority religion” (i.e., Christians). Singling out seven countries might also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which barred discrimination against immigrants (but not visitors) on the basis of national origin (unless permitted by Congress). But the upshot is that Trump is pulling up the welcome mat. The huddled masses are no longer going to be welcome. That is the message he is sending to his constituents, and to those living abroad.

Rather than focus on the legality of Trump’s executive order, which has already disrupted the lives of thousands of people, we should be focusing on the underlying policy issue. Is this the country that we want to be? Do we really want to admit no students, no scientists, no tourists, no visiting family members, no artists, no musicians, and no skilled employees from these seven countries? What exactly was wrong with the existing vetting procedures? Why were these seven countries chosen, and not others, such as Saudi Arabia, with a history of exporting terrorists to our shores? A strict reading of the executive order would bar any non-American citizen “from” Iran from obtaining a tourist visa, meaning that many of the relatives of our Persian Jewish community living abroad in Israel or Europe can no longer come to visit. Does that make anyone safer?

With regard to refugees, there is an even more fundamental question. Should we close off our country to even the most persecuted refugees? There are thousands of refugees, families with children, who have been waiting for years while their applications were vetted and who now are blocked. Some argue that we need to set up high barriers to entry to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Almost 80 years ago, when the United States faced a far greater threat than we do today, and Jews were the ones clamoring to get in, Americans made the same argument. “How do we know there won’t be Nazi spies among the refugees?” they asked. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long ordered all consular officials “to put every obstacle in the way” to delay and stop granting visas to Jewish refugees. As a result, 90 percent of the quota spots were left unfilled, and the Jews trapped in Europe, our relatives, were murdered.

I see little or no difference between the “America First” policy of President Trump, and the similarly named nativist policy that informed Breckinridge Long. We can do better, I think, than defying our own principles in the name of security.


RANDY SCHOENBERG is an attorney and a law lecturer at USC.

Protesters outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv on Jan. 29. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Trump ban does not invalidate US visas for Israelis born in banned countries


U.S. visas held by Israeli citizens born in the seven Muslim-majority countries covered under President Donald Trump’s travel ban remain valid, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has confirmed.

A statement about the visas was posted Tuesday on the embassy’s website.

“If you have a currently valid U.S. visa in your Israeli passport and were born in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen, and do not have a valid passport from one of these countries, your visa was not cancelled and remains valid,” the statement said. “Similarly, we continue to process visa applications for applicants born in those countries, so long as they do not have a valid passport from one of those countries and have not otherwise declared themselves to be a national of one of those countries.”

It added, however: “Authorization to enter the United States is always determined at the port of entry. We have no further information at this time.”

Asked about the issue Monday by the French news agency AFP, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem referred the question to the State Department, which could not answer the question several hours after it was posed.

Some 140,000 Israelis were born in the seven countries covered in the 90-day travel ban imposed by the executive order signed Friday by Trump. About 45,000 were born in Iran and 53,000 in Iraq, according to AFP, citing official statistics. Most are older than 65 and did not retain citizenship in their birth countries.

Demonstrators protests outside Terminal 4 at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 28. Photo by Kate Munsch/Reuters

Make America just (again)


At the height of the escape from Egypt, the Israelites are encamped on the banks of the Reed Sea and the Egyptians are bearing down on them. The Israelites and Moses are crying out to God. In a surprising twist God answers Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” Rabbi Eliezer expands God’s words thus: “The Holy One of Blessing said to Moses: ‘Moses, my children are in trouble! The sea is closing in on them, and the enemy is chasing them, and you are standing and praying?!!’”

There is a time for prayer and a time for action. We are now in a time that demands action.

Donald Trump has made immigration, refugees, and immigrants a target since the beginning of his candidacy. He now seems to be fulfilling his promises to build a wall (which the American taxpayer and not Mexico will end up paying for); deny entry to refugees based on their religious belief; establish a belief and values test for entry; empower local police to act as immigration and deportation agents; renew and expand contracts with private prisons to imprison immigrants without trial or representation for the sole “crime” of being undocumented.

This is all inimical to Jewish tradition and American values.

The great 12th century philosopher and jurist, Moses Maimonides, OBM, taught that the commandment to not return a runaway slave to his master (“You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” (Deut. 23:16)) is given to “makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled. It is not even enough to protect those who seek your protection, for you are under another obligation toward him: you must consider his interest, be beneficent toward him, and not pain his heart by speech.” Maimonides further taught that this law is imposed upon us in regard to all who seek refuge regardless of their relative status in society. (Guide for the Perplexed III:39)

While the history of the United States is spotty at best in regard to welcoming strangers, and giving comfort to the weak—Native Americans were subjected to genocidal treatment; Africans were brought to this country by force as chattel to produce wealth for their masters and die—the ideals of the country give hope for its perfectibility. The preamble of the Constitution sets out as its task the creation of a more perfect Union—that is, the admission that the current Union is not perfect but perfectible. The first way that this more perfect Union might be established is by establishing Justice. Justice might reasonably be defined in line with the Declaration of Independence as: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When one group is discriminated against systemically, by denying them entry to the country or by denying them the privileges of citizenship once they are in the country, the country is no longer pursuing justice. To quote Martin Luther King “America has defaulted on this promissory note [which guarantees these unalienable rights].” However we must with King “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

In order to walk in the way of righteousness and prove that the bank of justice is not bankrupt, the Jewish community must stand with all right-minded communities to

– Support the creation of “Sanctuary Cities” across the country which will not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the involuntary deportation of undocumented residents;

– Urge cities and states to set aside resources which will guarantee access to counsel to insure due process for all those involved in deportation proceedings;

– Support the permanent extension of DACA until such time as a path to citizenship is created;

– Support a broad immigration reform which would allow eleven million undocumented residents of this country a path to becoming US citizens;

– Oppose the creation of a deportation force, or the channeling of extra funds to ICE or the Border Patrol so that they act as a deportation force;

– Support the closing of detention centers where immigrants are held in prison-like conditions despite the fact that they are not charged with any crime;

– Oppose the use of private prisons in general and specifically for incarcerating undocumented immigrants.

We have entered upon dark times, but we cannot despair. We must act justly and then “God will cause your vindication to shine forth like the light, the justice of your case, like the noonday sun.” (Psalms 37:6) This is how we make America great.


Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University and Rabbi in Residence at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

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.

8 great bipartisan goals for Donald Trump


We are all witnesses to the inauguration of our 45th president. He wasn’t my first choice (for that matter, he was safely well outside of my “top 10”). In the Republican primary, I voted for John Kasich. When Donald Trump became the nominee, I opted to support Hillary Clinton because she seemed the opposite of Trump’s lack of seriousness, inadequate knowledge of history and policy, and simplistic conclusions about complex issues, all seemingly without introspection or retrospection. 

But here we are, contemplating the unknowns that such an unconventional — and so far, unsettling — administration portends. While many are focusing on Trump’s daily tweets and outrageous behaviors, and they seem to be legion, we instead should put this election behind us and work on the serious business of working together. Perhaps by being so unconventional, Trump can be the agent for real “out-of-the-box” change. In short, It’s time to get to work.

We all attest to want middle-class economic relief, a better health plan, more employment, tax reform, compassionate immigration policy and a stable world. Here is some advice to the new president in areas where bipartisanship might prevail, where Republicans and Democrats can work together to move the country forward. 

Immigration reform  

Mr. Trump, I think you know that a  wall between the United States and Mexico is unrealistic and ludicrously costly, but there are more sensible ways to secure our borders and reform our immigration system. Politicians from both parties support vigilantly protecting our borders and enhancing background checks. So go ahead and build a metaphorical wall — but, when it comes to undocumented people already living in this country, you also must demonstrate your humanity. You should promise the children of immigrants that they can remain and grant those who immigrated here illegally a pathway to citizenship. This is largely the plan devised by a bipartisan group of senators in 2013; let’s revisit it now.

Tax reform

Everybody wants to fix the inequities and complexities of the current system, but no one wants their own ox gored. Let’s shake up the tax code and get four things done quickly, most of which have the support of a majority of public opinion and Congress: a) Lower corporate tax rates, currently the highest among the 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to the median of that organization; b) Roll back marginal tax rates by increasing the income level at which income taxes kick in, expanding the lowest brackets and rolling the highest bracket back to 35 percent; c) Phase out the home mortgage interest deduction, which has contributed to the accumulation of debt, exacerbated the global financial crisis and benefited owners at the expense of renters; and d) Eliminate some of the largest tax loopholes, starting with the carried interest deduction, the ethanol subsidy and the biggest corporate giveaways.

Fix Social Security  

As an interim measure, increase the income level below which Social Security taxes are charged from $118,500 to $200,000, raise the retirement age to 69 and eliminate Social Security payments at retirement for those who made in excess of $250,000 on average in the five years before retirement. Eventually, eliminate the Social Security and Medicare taxes and replace them with something more progressive and fairer than taxing labor and capital.

Fund infrastructure 

Identify infrastructure improvements and put people to work. Provide a mix of grants to states and low interest-rate loans to public-private partnerships willing to invest in needed improvements. There will be no better time for the government to borrow than in today’s low interest-rate environment. Many Democrats already have signaled their willingness to work with the president on this issue.

Reaffirm America’s support for its allies 

We must reaffirm our commitment to NATO and our neighbors to the north and south. Go ahead and try to improve NAFTA, but don’t scrap it — our auto industries and others depend on it. As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), you can try to make it tougher, but we can’t afford to provide a vacuum that China will fill, both in trade and geopolitics. Get the TPP done on terms you can declare acceptable.

Fix the Affordable Care Act 

A great health care system assures accessibility, affordability and quality of care. Let’s all acknowledge that the ACA (Obamacare) has increased accessibility. Yet it funded this accessibility with increased health care costs, the bulk of which were borne by the middle class — that very middle class you pledged to serve. So let’s fund this more sensibly, with user fees that moderate overuse of the system, elimination of the restrictions on insurance companies to sell across borders (I won’t be happy until health insurance ads are as ubiquitous and annoying as those Geico and Allstate ads for car insurance), and allowing people greater choice in their health care plans. Some of the funding can come from a value added tax (VAT), as discussed below.

Help Israel chart a course 

I believe Israel has been boxed into a corner. The world dictates terms but expects little in return. Let’s stipulate that the suburbs of Jerusalem, those clearly within the Israeli sphere under the Ehud Barak-Yasser Arafat negotiated borders and the Olmert plan, are Israeli. In return, Israel should dismantle the tiny enclaves whose original purpose was to make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible and expand none of the others. We should propound a set of principles that includes a solid contiguous Palestinian state, fewer checkpoints and the daily indignities to which Palestinians are subjected, and an Israel Defense Forces guarantee of security for Israel and the West Bank, and later for the Palestinian state, for a period of decades. Consider proposing an interim period of confederation, during which the West Bank can develop industry, infrastructure and institutions.

Start the discussion of a VAT 

This one doesn’t have bipartisan support — yet. Trump ran on a platform of strengthening American competitiveness. Let’s stop taxing American labor to fund Social Security and Medicare. It makes us less competitive. Plus, we should tax things other than labor and capital. We should tax consumption. A value added tax (VAT) has been accepted through much of the developed world. All consumption (excluding food, pharmaceuticals and other necessities) would be taxed. This would eliminate much of the current regressive system and would act as an indirect tax on wealth, rather than labor or capital.

Pie in the sky? Impossible to believe we can get things done? Trump already has achieved the improbable once. Let’s do it again — together.


Attorney Glenn Sonnenberg is president of Latitude Real Estate Investors and past president of Stephen Wise Temple. He sits on the boards of Bet Tzedek, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos, USC Gould School of Law and Wise Freedom School Partners.

Letters to the Editor: Election and immigration


The Left, the Right and the Election

Dennis Prager declares Good triumphed over Evil by stating: “Turns out the whole Democratic Party lost hugely on Election Day” (“Please Keep Calling Us Racists and Misogynists,” Nov. 18). He failed to look at the numbers. As of late November, the Democratic candidate had garnered more than 2 million more votes than his president-elect. Therefore, the Democratic Party is the majority party. The Republican candidate was saved by the Electoral College likely to give him 282 votes. 

I wish his president-elect good luck. I hope he will rise above his questionable utterances made during the campaign and be a good president for Americans of both sexes, all races and all religions.

And, who knows, maybe his Jewish grandson will be a Democrat and be the first Jewish president 50 or 60 years from now.

Ken Lautman, Los Angeles


While Republican Party apologist Dennis Prager bloviates about his party’s wins on election night, he misses the point in his urgency to again demonize the left for its “half-century [of] libeling and labeling conservatives” and “the harm the left has done to … Judaism, Jews, America and to Western civilization.”

Over 70 percent of eligible, registered voters either didn’t vote at all or voted against Donald Trump. In the face of this non-mandate, which Hillary Clinton would have inherited, as well, Mr. Prager has curiously chosen to strafe the left and to ignore perhaps a greater task at hand: to use his voice to help heal his own Republican Party, and, rather than chastising caring Jews who sat shivah last week, lead by example in words and deeds why we should do teshuvah and return to the Republican Party. Essentially, Mr. Prager missed a golden opportunity.

Graham Becker, Oak Park, Calif.


Dennis Prager writes, “For eight years, many on the left have described criticism of Barack Obama as racist. … For the left, it is not possible that conservative opposition to [Obama] has been rooted in public policy and moral differences that have nothing to do with race.”

Numerous polls have shown that more than 40 percent of Republicans believe President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. Donald Trump and the conservative media who propagated these calumnies (and Republicans who embraced these lies) did so solely to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama. And they did it for only one reason: because he is Black.

This has nothing to do with “public policy and moral differences” and everything to do with race. 

Michael Asher via email


It is amazing that after all the information came out, no thanks to the mainstream media, about Hillary Clinton, (“The New Political Reality,” Nov. 18) that The New York Times reported that 71 percent of “Jews” still supported her candidacy! 

But, again, not all the Jews of Mitzrayim left with Moses.

This election was a beautiful morality play, and thank God, it turned out right.

Enriqué Gascon, Los Angeles


An Iranian Jew’s View of Immigration

As a fellow American Jew with an Iranian heritage, Gina Nahai’s series of “do you ever think” admonitions posing as “questions” would have been demeaning were they not devoid of intellectual rigor and evident of a pervasive bubble mentality among the left’s elite (“Appeasing the Crocodile,” Nov. 18). Immigration laws of any nation are intended, first and foremost, to protect the safety and well-being of its citizens. A charitable and moral country such as ours (perhaps the most in the history of mankind) also welcomes the benighted and offers a haven to the persecuted, but not at the risk or to the detriment of its citizens. A nation without borders cannot remain a nation. I doubt Ms. Nahai leaves her home door unlocked anytime during the day. If a minority voice among my cultural cohort exhibited anti-American sentiments, I would 1) expect my government’s vigilance in monitoring its immigration, and 2) speak up against its perversion, not cast dispersion from the luxury and safety of my Westside home. Ms. Nahai is disingenuous by claiming she has only “one question” and is “not attempting to make a point here,” but the real question is why isn’t the answer self-evident to the intellectual left?

Ramin Kianfar via email

Refugee promise, immigrant fear


Many European countries characterize the refugee crisis as a “German problem.” This is absurd — it should concern all member states, many of which have a dismissive attitude toward refugees. In stark contrast stands German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her now famous expression, “We can do it!”  She has emphasized the human duty to receive men, women and children in need. 

Merkel has been firmly in power for 11 years. Now, thanks to her pro-immigrant stand, she’s being challenged for the first time as opposition to the asylum law increases. 

I am proud to know Angela Merkel personally. I admire her, because she always keeps her dignity and is true to herself. Among all of Europe’s rulers, she is, without a doubt, a true friend of the State of Israel. On her, one can rely 100 percent. It was Merkel, after all, who pointed out the danger toward Israel’s existence from the Iranian nuclear threat. 

In East Germany, where she grew up, Merkel openly witnessed anti-Zionism. The murder of 6 million Jews under the Nazi regime and Germany’s resulting responsibility for the safety of the Jewish state made a deep impression on her. She often had problems understanding why many of her fellow German citizens did not see the misdeeds of the Holocaust as an enormous burden for Germany’s worldwide reputation. It was important to her to correct that reputation, which suffered greatly from World War II, with an especially warm, generous refugee policy of open frontiers.

Anyone who appreciates Merkel for her generous humanity no doubt hopes she will not remain a “lonesome chancellor,” but that she can regain the confidence of her people and remain in power. It is important to take into account that no German citizen is doing worse due to the refugees. Social benefits have not been reduced, governmental institutions are still strong. Hence, one can and should see the influx of refugees as an opportunity, not a danger. 

Of course, the opportunities do not come without concerns. For Natan Sharansky, president of the Jewish Agency since 2009, the main concern is that Europe does not lose its identity. Many refugees do not share European values and have great difficulty respecting the norms of democracy. More important is whether European citizens have the inner strength to stand up for essential European norms and to appreciate and protect the value of freedom. “If refugees are received as new citizens,” Sharansky said, “without requesting them to accept the common rules, Europe is in danger.”

 “Within five years, the State of Israel has mastered a population increase of 20 percent,” he said, referring to the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. “When we attempt to integrate people that are not willing to share our values and norms, our most important plan won’t succeed. Integration can only succeed if they want to be part of the country’s history, culture and political traditions, and deeply connect with the society. Only then.”

Continued acts of anti-Semitic violence underscore those concerns. In 2015, there were 108 serious physical attacks on Jews in France — an increase of 30 percent. Additional statistics illustrate the feeling of fear among Jews living in France. 

“Today, even small children in France know not to let themselves be recognized as Jews in public,” said Meyer Habib, the Jewish representative of the French parliament. “The immigration of Muslims in France and the new type of anti-Semitism only have one clear meaning: There is no future for Jews in France!”

In Switzerland, where I live, Islam is the strongest growing religious community. After every assassination by Islamists, Europe’s (and Switzerland’s) Muslims are asked to distance themselves from the terror. 

But perhaps more is needed. 

“Ashamed dissociation from terror is not enough,” secular Moroccan writer Kacem El Ghazzali said. “It is more important to fight the movements that lead to terrorism. Islamic terror has indeed something to do with Islam. And whoever criticizes Islam is still far from being [an] Islamophobe.” 

Each and every moderate Muslim has a responsibility to act and to publically compete with the prevailing fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, El Ghazzali said.  

It remains to be hoped for that more moderate Muslims take on this responsibility.


ARTHUR COHN is a multiple Academy Award-winning producer based in Switzerland.

Talking Trump with my father


In my mind, I have arguments with my dad. In my mind, I am much more eloquent than my first grade Russian could possibly allow.

If he were alive today, my father would vote for Trump–  just like most of the Russian Jewish immigrant population and a sizeable minority of Persian Jews in the US.   This is something I just cannot understand.

My family came to this country in 1975 from Odessa, USSR. I was 7. Our story was the usual one for Russian émigrés of that time. My mother worked two jobs, we saved our money and she started a successful business. My brother and I went to good schools. My parents never failed to appreciate the freedoms we had and the basic justice of American society

This is what I find interesting: How can immigrants fleeing from tyranny be drawn to a candidate who exhibits so many signs of being a tyrant?

Since both my parents have passed away, I can only wonder how they would answer this question. And in my wondering, I inevitably end up having an imaginary argument with my father.

“Dad, how could you support Trump?” I  ask. “You’re an immigrant! He scapegoats immigrants for domestic economic problems and problems with crime that have nothing to do with them, according to all statistics! He wants to ban Muslims from entering this country. Racist crap comes out of his mouth daily. Did you like it when he said that he wanted Jews and not blacks to count his money? The neo Nazis consider him their champion, their ‘God Emperor.’ He refused to distance himself from white supremacist supporters. He has flip flopped on Israel so many times!”

“Son,” my imaginary dad responds with a gravitas that would have been entirely foreign to the real Zinovy Rivkin, “you are so American. So soft, so sensitive, so politically correct. This is why your mother and I worked so hard? So you could go to a fancy school and become a socialist? Look, Trump is a real man. He says what’s on his mind. Does he sometimes say dumb things? Sure, but so do all of us when we speak from the heart instead of the teleprompter. He has the guts to say what we are all thinking .”

“Son,” he continues, “this country has been going to hell. You’re a doctor – can’t you hear it wheezing? Your friends the Democrats have been giving Pedro Hernandez free food and healthcare and education and jobs while Americans drown in debt and joblessness. 

And those Muslims! You think they your buddies? When your back is turned they will cut your Jew throat! Shush! I know, I know – the moderate ones! No such thing, you putz! If you see one, catch it for me and bring it home. I want to see it with my own eyes.”

“And don’t you worry about Israel, Trump has plenty of good Jews around him.  As for as what Hillary thinks of Israel, I have one name for you: Max Blumenthal. Never heard of him? Look him up, genius, you will learn something.”

“But dad…”

“Wait, I’m not done yet. You were just a little pisser when we left, you hadn’t had a taste of socialism yet. Well, we had to choke down great big bowls of it and we’re full! No more, thank you. Your Democrats have been trying to create their socialist paradise here in America for 50 years. Thank God for Reagan! He gave it to Gorbachev, right on the nose! The Republicans have been standing up for freedom and the real, working America ever since. Eight years of Hussein screwing up and giving everything away is enough. Its time to move in the right direction again.”

This is the point where my imaginary fingers are tearing out my imaginary hair. 

Is conversation possible here? Not as long as all we do is try to convince each other.  These are emotional, tribalist arguments. Us vs them, Democrat vs Republican (despite the fact that Trump has shown little interest in upholding GOP platforms). Trying to win the other person over with facts often backfires – they cling to their opinions with renewed vigor because, ultimately, many political opinions are based more on beliefs than facts and challenging those opinions directly is interpreted as a personal attack.  We think that facts dictate our beliefs, but in reality it is our beliefs that dictate which facts we accept and which ones we reject. 

If there is common ground between my late father and myself, it is around values we share like justice,  freedom and dignity. But these can be small patches of conversational real estate encircled by land mines. Keeping the peace will mean efforts to see the world from the other person’s perspective and trying to understand their worries. It will mean respecting their point of view and avoiding direct conflict, especially when one or the other gets emotional. It will mean that often we will agree to disagree. 

As physicians, we sometimes have to reach deep for empathy, but the effort always pays off. The doctors who give up burn out quickly and become miserable. So it is for all of us humans. We must all find our ways toward empathy, despite ideological obstacles, especially with the ones we love.


Alexander Z. Rivkin, M.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor at David Geffen, UCLA School of Medicine.

Donald Trump, accepting nomination, paints dark picture in pledging to put ‘America first’


Accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump pledged to restore law and order to America, to put “America first” in world affairs, and to work with Israel — which he called “our greatest ally in the region.”

Attacking presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state in his speech Thursday at the Republican National Convention, Trump criticized last year’s agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Opposed vehemently by the Israeli government, the agreement is a popular bête noire for Republicans.

Trump said the deal put Iran “on the path to nuclear weapons.” He also criticized the Obama administration for reneging on its pledge to attack Syria if its government used chemical weapons.

“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another,” Trump said. “The signing of the Iran deal, which gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing – it will go down in history as one of the worst deals ever negotiated. Another humiliation came when president Obama drew a red line in Syria – and the whole world knew it meant absolutely nothing.”

Trump pledged to defeat the Islamic State terror group, known as ISIS, and called Israel America’s best ally in the Middle East.

“We must work with all of our allies who share our goal of destroying ISIS and stamping out Islamic terrorism,” he said. “Doing it now, doing it quickly. We’re going to win. We’re going to win fast. This includes working with our greatest ally in the region, the State of Israel.”

Trump criticized the United States’ allies for taking advantage of its military protection and financial assistance. He called NATO “obsolete,” and said “the countries we are protecting at a massive cost to us will be asked to pay their fair share.” On the day he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, he had suggested that Israel would be included in that group.

Trump said he would prioritize nationalism over “globalism.” He repeated his slogan, “America first,” at one point chanting it while discussing trade agreements. “America first” was the name of an isolationist and often anti-Semitic movement leading up to World War II. Trump has said the slogan has no connection to the movement.

“The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First,” he said, prompting chants of “U.S.A.” “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

Much of the speech concerned fortifying the U.S. border and increasing law and order in the country. Trump condemned attacks on police officers, read off a list of recent negative economic trends and promised to improve the economic situation of all Americans.

Calling himself the “law and order candidate,” Trump said the U.S. would “be a country of generosity and warmth,” while providing security to its citizens.

“I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

Trump did not repeat his ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, though he proposed a modified version of that policy. He pledged to “immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.”

Trump criticized career politicians, promising to fix what he portrayed as a broken system. He cited Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ loss to Clinton in the Democratic party as an example. He said he would appeal to Sanders voters by promising to improve America’s trade agreements with other countries for the benefit of American workers.

“I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders — he never had a chance,” Trump said. “But his supporters will join our movement, because we will fix his biggest single issue: trade deals that strip our country of its jobs and strip us of our wealth.”

Trump pledged to ease access to private schools, saying he would allow parents to send children “to the safe school of their choice.” He also criticized the restriction on religious leaders preaching politics from the pulpit, known as the “Johnson amendment,” and said that he was “not sure I totally deserved” the support of Evangelical Christian communities.

“They have much to contribute to our politics,” he said of religious leaders. “Yet our laws prohibit you from speaking your own mind from your own pulpit. I’m going to work very hard to repeal that language and to protect free speech for all Americans.”

Trump was introduced by his daughter Ivanka, who is Jewish. Ivanka Trump said she did “not consider myself fundamentally Republican or Democrat.” She said Trump would change labor laws to benefit working mothers, and would push for equal pay for equal work. She also said her father had a “strong ethical compass” and recalled building toy models of buildings on his office floor as a child.

“One of my father’s greatest talents is the ability to see potential in people before they see it in themselves,” Ivanka Trump said. “My father not only has the strength and ability necessary to be our next president, but the kindness and compassion that will enable him to be the leader our country needs.”

Trump returned the affection, showing pride in his wife, Melania, and his five children.

“In this journey, I’m so lucky to have at my side my wife Melania and my wonderful children, Don, Ivanka, Eric, Tiffany, and Barron,” he said. “You will always be my greatest source of pride and joy. And by the way, Melania and Ivanka, did they do a job!”

And though he called for unity in the country and to “believe in America,” he got in a jab at his string of opponents this year.

“They said Trump doesn’t have a chance of being here tonight, not a chance,” he said. “We love defeating those people.”

Donald Trump urges ban on Muslims entering U.S.


Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Monday called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States in the most dramatic response by a candidate yet to last week's shooting spree by two Muslims who the FBI said were radicalized.

Trump's “statement on preventing Muslim immigration” drew fierce criticism from some of his rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, all of whom have been searching for ways to knock him out of the lead.

Withering reaction flowed in from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

“Donald Trump is unhinged. His 'policy' proposals are not serious,” Bush said in a tweet.

The billionaire developer and former reality TV star, who frequently uses racially charged rhetoric, called for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country “until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.”

“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” Trump said.

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, asked in an email if the shutdown would apply specifically to immigration or more broadly to student visas, tourists, and other travelers to the United States, replied: “Everyone.”

Trump went farther than other Republican candidates, who have called for a suspension of a plan by President Barack Obama to bring into the United States as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing their country's civil war and Islamic State militants.

Twitter exploded over Trump's proposal with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton calling his idea “reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive,” but conservative pundit Ann Coulter writing, “GO TRUMP, GO!”

Ibraham Hooper, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, had a blistering response.

“We're entering into the realm of the fascist now,” he said by telephone. “It should be disturbing not only to American Muslims, but it should be disturbing to all Americans that the leading Republican presidential candidate would issue essentially a fascist statement like this.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told MSNBC that Trump is “seeking to tap into a darker side, a darker element, and try to play on people's fears in order to build support for his campaign.”

Obama on Sunday night in an Oval Office address had called on Americans to be tolerant of fellow citizens regardless of their religion.

Trump's aim is to bolster his position among conservative voters who have kept him atop opinion polls of Republican voters for months, to the point that establishment Republicans fret he could win the nomination and do so poorly in the general election next November that Republicans could not only lose the White House but also control of Congress.

Whether Trump will pay a price for the move is unclear. He has shown a proclivity toward insulting people with no penalty, from saying a storied Vietnam veteran, Senator John McCain, is not a hero to blasting Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

The most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found stark differences between Republicans and Democrats in how they view Muslims. The poll, which was conducted after last week's San Bernardino, California, attacks, found that 69 percent of Republicans expressed at least some fears of Muslims, compared with 39 percent of Democrats.

To support his proposal, Trump pointed to data from the conservative think tank Center for Security Policy indicating that a quarter of Muslims in a poll thought violence against Americans was justified.

The center's president, Frank Gaffney Jr., has been critical of Muslims in America, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, calls him “one of America's most notorious Islamaphobes.”

Senator Graham tweeted that Trump has “gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric.”

“This is just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath and another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States,” said Kasich.

A spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, Doug Watts, said Carson did not believe that religion should be a litmus test for entry to the country but said everyone visiting the United States should be monitored during their stay, saying that is the case in many countries.

Trump's statement followed the massacre last week of 14 people in San Bernardino, slain in a hail of bullets by a Muslim couple that the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Monday had been radicalized.

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.”

Liberal Jewish group launches TV campaign against anti-immigrant hatred


The public debate over immigration reform and the rhetoric that is being used in the Republican presidential primary in the last few months, has prompted Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice group, to launch a campaign against anti-immigrant hatred.

On Monday, the Jewish political action committee released a 30-second TV advertisement, as well as an online petition, to raise the issue and urge the American Jewish community to work together to change the public discourse over the matter.

The six-figure ad will run on CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC during the Sunday morning talk shows, as well as during the MSNBC Democratic presidential forum Friday evening, according to Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc.

“We’ve heard this ugly kind of hatred before. Many of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and millions of other Jewish immigrants, faced this same kind of hate when they arrived. We were called these very same things. We were told we’d never be real Americans,” a message on the online petition reads. “Join Bend the Arc and the American Jewish community in pledging to stand against anti-immigrant hatred. If thousands of us raise our voices together we can deliver the powerful message that our community refuses to be silent and put those using this hateful rhetoric on notice.”

Speaking to Jewish Insider, Susskind said the ad was not specifically targeting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over his recent comments against immigrants, but added that “we’ve certainly seen an unfortunate amount of that in the Republican debate.” He also expressed concern over House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pledge to the House Freedom Caucus to hold back legislation on immigration reform until President Barack Obama leaves office.

“For us, the issue of immigration, but also of discrimination and hate, is deeply rooted in the work that we do,” he told Jewish Insider. “It’s not long ago that the Jewish community was in that debate; we were the immigrants and we were being told that we are unacceptable, and I think that still echoes very strongly in our community here.”

“The ad is not about changing policy but changing the political rhetoric over the issue,” Susskind added.

Pope tells Congress U.S. should reject hostility to immigrants


Pope Francis told Congress on Thursday that the United States should reject a “mindset of hostility” to immigrants, directly addressing a thorny subject that is dividing the country and stirring debate in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a historic first speech by a pope to a U.S. Congress, the Argentine pontiff said the United States must not turn its back on “the stranger in our midst.”

“Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility,” the 78-year-old Francis told the Republican-dominated legislature.

Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, delivered a wide-ranging speech in English that took on issues dear to liberals in the United States and also emphasized conservative values and Catholic teachings on the family. The pope called for support in fighting climate change, a more equitable economy, and an end to the death penalty.

In reference to abortion and euthanasia, the pope said humanity must “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

Aversion to illegal immigrants has featured heavily in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Front-runner Donald Trump says he would deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants if he were elected to the White House and has accused Mexico of sending rapists and other criminals across the border.

Speaking softly and in heavily accented English to a packed House of Representatives chamber, Francis said America should not be put off by the number of immigrants who are trying to make it their home.

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal,” he said.

His comments on immigration were met with frequent applause mostly from Democrats, but from Republicans too.

After efforts by both sides to overhaul immigration laws failed, the United States saw a flood last year of more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America rushing to the U.S. border hoping to get in.

Several Republican presidential candidates were in the audience, including retired neurologist Ben Carson, Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

A frequent critic of the damage caused to the environment by capitalism's excesses, the pope said Congress has an important role to play to “avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”

In comments welcomed by conservatives, Francis expressed concern about threats to the family, a reference to same-sex marriage after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that made gay marriage legal across the country.

Francis said the traditional family “is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

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 (raicestexas.org) and the American Immigration Council (americanimmigrationcouncil.org).


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.

Appeals court rules with states challenging Obama’s immigration action


The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday in favor of 26 states challenging President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, potentially paving the way for a Supreme Court decision on the issue.

Two judges on the three-judge panel ruled that the executive action, which would grant an estimated 4.7 million undocumented immigrants relief from deportation, should remain on hold while the government appeals its blocking.

The immigration order was first put on hold by Texas Judge Andrew Hanen in February after the states, all led by Republican governors, alleged that taking in migrants would be overly burdensome.

“The President's attempt to bypass the will of the American people was successfully checked again today,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a news release.

The case has become the focal point of Obama's efforts to change U.S. immigration policy.

Seeing no progress on legislative reform in Congress, Obama announced in November he would take executive action to help immigrants. He has since faced criticism from Republicans who say the program grants amnesty to lawbreakers.

The 5th Circuit will rule again in the coming months on whether the Obama administration can appeal the block to the executive order. That decision may be made by a new panel of judges and will take into account more evidence.

Immigration advocates have been wary of the prospect that the 5th Circuit, known as one of the most conservative in the nation, would rule with the administration.

“We are disappointed, but this is not unexpected at all,” Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said on a conference call with reporters.

Hincapie said the immigration advocate community is still optimistic the executive order will prevail, even if it means waiting until the Supreme Court can rule on it.

ELECTION RAMIFICATIONS

If it is denied an appeal, the Obama administration may ask the Supreme Court to consider the case, potentially delaying the launch of the immigration programs until June 2016.

That could bring up the issue at a politically important time, said Marshall Fitz, vice president of immigration policy at left-leaning Washington think tank Center for American Progress.

“If the programs go into effect next June, there will be real electoral consequences,” Fitz said. “There is a clear contrast between (Democratic front-runner Hillary) Clinton and any Republican in the current field.”

Clinton has said she would like to see Obama's action expanded to shield even more immigrants from deportation.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment following the court's decision.

Arabs to outnumber Jews in Israel, West Bank and Gaza in 2016


The number of Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will equal the number of Jewish Israelis in 2016, according to Palestinian statistics.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in a report summarizing 2014 determined that the projected number of Palestinians in the world is 12.1 million, of whom 4.62 million live in the West Bank and Gaza, 1.46 million in Israel, 5.34 million in Arab countries and some 675,000 in  foreign countries.

The number of Palestinians and Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will total about 6.42 million each in 2016 if current growth rates remain constant, according to the bureau, which determined that the number of Palestinians in those areas will total 7.14 million compared to 6.87 million Jews by the end of 2020.

The estimated birth rate of all Palestinians is 32.3 births per thousand, with 29.4 in the West Bank and 36.8 in Gaza. The rate is expected to decline to 29 by 2020, according to the bureau.

Census puts U.S. population at 320.09 million, up 0.7 percent from year-ago


The U.S. population is seen at 320.09 million people as of Jan. 1, up 0.73 percent from a year earlier, the Census Bureau said on Monday.

The Census Bureau said in a statement that the figure represents an increase of about 11.35 million people, or 3.67 percent, since the last population count on April 1, 2010.

“In January 2015, the U.S. is expected to experience a birth every eight seconds and one death every 12 seconds. Meanwhile, net international migration is expected to add one person to the U.S. population every 33 seconds,” the Census Bureau said.

It said the combination of births, deaths and net international migration would add at least one person to the U.S. population every 16 seconds.

The Census Bureau projected the world population on Jan. 1 at about 7.21 billion, a 1.08 percent increase from New Year's day in 2014. It estimated that about 4.3 births and 1.8 deaths will occur worldwide every second in January.

U.S. House passes $1.1 trillion government funding bill


The House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill late on Thursday to fund most federal agencies through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

By a vote of 219-206, the House approved the bill, which would fund the Department of Homeland Security only through February to give Republicans a chance early next year to try to stop President Barack Obama's immigration reforms that are largely carried out by DHS.

The legislation still must be passed by the Senate before it can be sent to Obama for signing into law.

A separate bill to fund the government for two days is likely to be passed by the House, according to a Republican leadership aide. The measure is needed to give the Senate time to pass the $1.1 trillion bill and also avoid a government shutdown at midnight on Thursday when current funding expires.

Taking on the “Boxcar” Crowd


In the Saturday (11/29/2014) New York Times story about the provenance of President Obama’s executive order on immigration, readers learned that House Speaker John Boehner faced opposition to comprehensive immigration legislation “from what Republican aides call the ‘boxcars crowd,’ a reference to conservative members who favor deportation for most of the 11 million” undocumented people in the country.

Absent from the story was any mention of shame, dismay, or denial by Mr. Boehner or the unnamed Republic aides that such a “boxcars crowd” exists within their caucus. Surely all the efforts to provide lessons about the Shoah should have produced a generation of Americans, whether Republican aides, electeds of either party, or fifth-graders in school, who know that the Nazi criminals used boxcars to “deport” the unwanted people from their midst.

It would be helpful to obtain a roster of the “boxcars crowd.” Certainly doing that work would be a worthy project for the reporting staffs of the major national newspapers. Better yet, it would be helpful to have a roster of the Republican leadership who condone the deportationists, just as it has become increasingly clear over time that the perpetrators of the Shoah included not only the criminal designers of the murder program but also the people who remained silent or were complicit as its evil work went forward.

There may be some in the “boxcars crowd” who have studied the Nazi legal system and who would contend the Hitler regime only deported people who were not citizens, most having been stripped of German citizenship prior to other crimes having been perpetrated against them. This argument would qualify as defining a distinction without a difference. It would also cause concern if anyone in the “boxcars crowd” had made a serious study of the Nazi legal system.

I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that the “boxcars crowd,” once named, would closely resemble the late 19th century populists the historian Richard Hofstadter had in mind when he wrote about the “Paranoid Style in American Politics” nearly a half century ago. Those who practiced the “paranoid style” of politics tended to nativists, racists, biblical literalists, and—no big surprise—bigoted against Jews. Except for the biblical literalism, much the same could be said for early 20th century progressives who made common cause with the populists to bring us such failures of coalitional politics as the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan limiting immigration from that country, the National Origins Act which virtually ended European immigration to the US in the 1920s and 1930s—with horrific consequences for Jews seeking escape from Nazism but finding the US closed to most of them—Prohibition, quotas limiting Jewish enrollment in private colleges, and restrictive covenants prohibiting Jews from living anywhere we wished.

The deportationist “boxcars crowd” should remind us that not only the Exodus lesson (“for you were a stranger in Egypt”) but also our experience and interests in the US compel us to have a very tender approach to those treated as the other, as people of inferior status.

Images reminiscent of the Shoah are not new to the issue of US enforcement of immigration laws. In 1979, late in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) allied with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to sue the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) because of the so-called “factory surveys” used by the INS to discover and deport illegal immigrants. What struck the AJC leaders at the time was the way in which INS officers would enter a garment factory, block the exits, then march down the aisles of operatives, making a “selection” of those who looked like undocumented persons. (Disclosure: I was a very junior member of the AJC staff who worked on this matter.)

US District Court Judge Laughlin Waters rejected a plea for injunctive relief; an appeal to the 9th Circuit was successful, but the Supreme Court of the US upheld the INS’s methods. AJC friend of the court briefs attempted to explain the civil rights aspect of the case. Similar arguments from MALDEF were equally unavailing. Perhaps the limitation of the civil rights coalition in this case to AJC and MALDEF, while perhaps advancing further cooperation between Jews and Mexican-Americans, was too narrow to convince the Justices that a genuine civil rights problem was involved. When I used this case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1984 as INS v Delgado, for lessons at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, some students wondered if the outcome would have been different if organizations like the Urban League, Japanese American Citizens League, and Korean American Coalition had joined the AJC briefs.

Amicus briefs rarely influence appellate courts, but they do provide a mechanism for like-minded organizations to make common cause on important issues. Just as the “boxcars crowd” represents a coalition whose attitude to the “other” has sought deportation as its favored solution, so should the leaders of Jewish public affairs organizations—now a much more numerous group than when AJC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Community Relations Committee of the local Jewish Federation ruled the day—join with those who are like us, “others,” and at peril from the “boxcars crowd.”

Neil Kramer is Dean of Faculty Emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California

Welcoming the stranger


On almost every emerging issue of public policy, our community asks the same question, either in audible or hushed voices: “Is it good for the Jews?” In the matter of President Barack Obama’s recent decision to defer and sideline prosecutions that might have resulted in the deportation of some 5 million undocumented persons in the United States, the answer to the question should be said and repeated in a loud, clear voice: “Yes!” Sometimes, what is good for the nation as a whole is good for the Jews, and vice versa.

In a televised address to the nation on Nov. 20, the president responded to longtime congressional inaction over proposals for comprehensive immigration reform by executive action. Specifically, he exercised his authority as chief of the executive branch of the federal government to defer the initiation of removal/deportation proceedings (and administratively close already-filed cases) against foreign-born individuals who have lived in the United States for five or more years, have no criminal records and have U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children.  Persons eligible for the president’s initiative will be required to register with the Department of Homeland Security, undergo background checks, work only when they secure employment authorization (for which they will now have the right to apply) and pay taxes on their income.  Those persons will not be eligible for welfare benefits or Obamacare. 

The president’s executive action is limited in time and scope: It will only last for three years, and will not constitute a permanent immunity from deportation proceedings or a pathway to permanent residency or naturalization.  Moreover, it confers no immunity from deportation for millions of longtime undocumented residents of the United States who have no U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children, or the hundreds of thousands of child and teenage migrants who have entered the United States without inspection over the past year. It is, rather, a temporary measure designed to maintain family unity for millions of hardworking, law-abiding adults who help support and sustain their children, many of who depend on them for financial support and all of whom depend on them for the emotional support that we all have needed from our mothers and fathers.   

As Obama said in his speech, “Tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic.” The president has used his constitutional power as chief enforcer of the immigration laws to allocate the resources of his government’s immigration officers and attorneys to prioritize the commencement and continuation of deportation cases against criminals, the recently arrived, and those with few or no family ties in the U.S. If every possible deportation case that could be brought to the federal government were, the already overloaded, undermanned, and underfinanced immigration court and enforcement systems would collapse of their own weight. Every prosecutor in every jurisdiction makes decisions every day on which cases should be filed and which should be deferred. The president has done no more than that.

The president’s initiative now places the ball firmly in Congress’ court to pass or not pass comprehensive or even piecemeal immigration reform.  Since the administration of George W. Bush — who, to his credit, pressed for comprehensive immigration reform of the same kind now favored by Obama — the Republican right has stymied all efforts to bring a bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. Several times, the Senate has passed an immigration reform bill.  Several times, House Speaker John Boehner has indicated his desire to pass an immigration reform bill. Nevertheless, several times, the speaker has led from behind and refused to bring a reform bill to the House floor because of the intransigence of a minority of his GOP caucus. The speaker and other Republican leaders in Congress have decried Obama’s initiative as unconstitutional (which it is not), as amnesty (which it is not) and as a refusal to work with Congress on more comprehensive legislation (which is belied by the evidence of the recent past). Obama’s response to all of this hyperbole has been succinct and on point: “Pass a bill.”  

Returning to the question of whether the president’s initiative is good for the Jews, we should all dust off our Torah and reread Exodus 23:9. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Obama initiative is a limited, practical act of rachmones — empathy designed to lift some of the terrible burdens from those people who live in the shadows of our society, while they help raise our children, tend to our homes and gardens, and pick our fruit. As they help sustain us, we should find the compassion to help sustain them. That is the Jewish — and the American — way.

Bruce J. Einhorn served as a United States Immigration Judge in Los Angeles from 1990 through 2007.  He is currently a professor of immigration, asylum and refugee law at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, and executive director of The Asylum project, a nonprofit aid group for the victims of foreign persecution and torture.

Immigrant nation


When you emerge from the Berlin subway into the Hermannplatz neighborhood, you enter Turkey.  Food stalls offer fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, sesame-encrusted simit and flakey boreks oozing sheep’s milk cheeses.  The language spoken on the street, the signs, the music from storefront boom boxes—all Turkish

I visited Hermannplatz on Nov. 8, as the rest of Berlin was immersed in a weekend of  celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were no signs of that momentous occasion, no posters, no balloons, nothing to mark the historic day that forged a free, modern Germany. I asked a native Berliner, “Why is that?”

“It’s not their Berlin,” she said. “It has nothing to do with them.”

Those words resonated with me again this week, as President Barack Obama wielded his executive authority to prevent the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

With the stroke of a pen, Obama set in motion a process that could ultimately move 5 million people, as he put it, to “come out of the shadows.” 

It was a huge, bold move, and it has generated an equal and opposite reaction.

Some critics say they are more upset at the way Obama made policy than at the policy itself.  Some fear that granting amnesty will reward or increase lawlessness. And some just fear Obama and anything he does.

I like the reaction of the Jewish group Bend the Arc, which tweeted, “Pop the Manischewitz! This is a big deal!”

What Obama did is legal—at least according to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society. It was also, as the Republican Jewish Coalition accused it of being, brazen and destabilizing. But it seems Obama has learned one lesson from the Middle East—things don’t get better on their own; the status quo is nobody’s friend.

So the President acted.  Once the high drama surrounding someone actually doing something in Washington subsides, it will be interesting to see the effect Obama’s decision will have on the ground.  Because, let’s face it, while we may be consumed by the Middle East, the lives of the people we live among, those who watch our children, cook our food, clean our homes and tend our yards have a much more immediate impact on us.   If they are treated with something approaching humanity; if they are given a chance, even a carefully circumscribed chance, of gaining a toehold to a better life, I suspect they will repay society with interest, in hard work, in the lives of their ambitious children, in gratitude.

How can I be sure? Because with the exception of the Native Americans, we’ve all been there. Two generations ago, my great-grandparents, the Eshmans, Peshkins and Vogels, found refuge here from the czar’s army.  Official records list them as cigar rollers and meat cutters—but they were likely padding their resumes. They came with no more skills or promise than the immigrants from Guatemala City or Nuevo Laredo.  Had today’s immigration laws been in effect back then, they’d have been sent back to Pinsk to perish (you can go to entrydenied.org to find out whether your ancestors would have been allowed in, too).  With a wave of his pen, Obama has written a new chapter in this very American story.

It’s strange even to be having this argument during Thanksgiving—a holiday that celebrates the way immigrants to this strange land were embraced by its inhabitants. The reason Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday, marked in almost every home, from Orthodox Jews to Confucian Chinese, is because we are all acknowledging the same thing: our good fortune to have found a place that embraces us, and makes us Americans.

Europe, from Germany to Paris to London, faces a crisis because it has not figured out how to make Germans, French and Englishmen out of swelling, alienated immigrant populations.

That is not just a waste of human potential, it is a security crisis. On Nov. 6, just two days before I visited Hermannplatz, a SWAT team burst into four apartments nearby and arrested four Turkish residents for allegedly supporting the ISIS group.  If you can’t deport millions—and you can’t—then you have to find a way to embrace them and their potential for contributing to society. People who see no chance of becoming part of their host country are more likely to turn on their host country. What could be a cure becomes a cancer.

What Obama did should only be the first step in making hard-working immigrants feel like the American story has everything to do with them. Because it does.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

What a GOP Senate would mean for the Jewish communal agenda


Should Republicans win the Senate and maintain control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 4 — as many observers expect them to do — the political gridlock that has characterized much of President Obama’s term is poised to intensify.

Jewish strategies, however, will remain the same: focus on areas, however marginal, where successes are within reach. Among the areas: funding for elderly care and resettling refugees; working at the state levels on issues such as poverty relief and advancing gay rights; and keeping the major issues suffering from legislative neglect, like immigration, alive in the public eye.

An exception is foreign policy, where a GOP win could mean movement on some issues, including Iran sanctions.

With midterm elections less than a month away, here’s an issue-by-issue look at what the Jewish community can expect if Republicans gain control of the Senate and House.

Social welfare spending

With deadlock expected, reforms to major programs like Medicare and Medicaid are not anticipated.

William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, named as his group’s priorities relatively small-bore issues like increased funding for long-term elderly care, advocacy for the disabled, providing for impoverished Holocaust survivors and preserving current tax deduction rates for charitable giving.

“On those issues there is bipartisan support,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which in recent years has expanded its focus on income inequality, said it’s OK to work the margins when the partisan divide makes it impossible to advance bigger issues, and he expected the divide to grow after the next election.

Gutow cited as an example the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps. Republicans in 2011 started out by proposing $39 billion in cuts, half the program’s budget. JCPA was among the groups that this year helped broker bipartisan agreement to cut SNAP spending by $9 billion over the next decade.

“We look at what’s realistic and go for it,” Gutow said. “You support the efforts that seem to be those that might win.”

Foreign policy

Republican majorities in both houses may mean more stasis on domestic issues but could advance a number of foreign policy issues. Chief among them is the effort by some pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to pass new sanctions on Iran that would kick in should nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers collapse.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate, at Obama’s behest, has stymied new sanctions, although enough Democratic senators back the legislation that it would likely have a majority should it come to a vote. Obtaining Democratic support even under a Republican majority would be key for a lobby that is keen to show that its initiatives have the backing of both parties.

“It’s likely that an emboldened Republican presence in Congress will want to pursue that vigorously,” said Eric Fusfield, the director of legislative affairs at B’nai B’rith International, a group that has backed the new sanctions.

That does not necessarily mean a confrontation with the White House, Fusfield said. Instead, the majority could spur Obama to reach an agreement with Congress on sanctions.

“There will still need to be a bipartisan consensus,” he said.

Much depends on whether Iran and the major powers meet a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal, Fusfield said.

Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street, which opposes new sanctions, agreed that Republicans would find it tougher to pass sanctions that may sabotage a deal with Iran.

“If an agreement is reached, it will survive both the current Senate and the next Senate, whatever its constitution,” he said. “I think senators from both parties will understand that if a deal is reached that does provide assurance that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon, that it is that or something far worse.”

Obama’s recent pivot toward greater intervention in Syria and Iraq would find a more sympathetic ear in a Republican-majority Congress, said Daniel Runde, the director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“You would definitely see the willingness to use the full spectrum of American power,” said Runde, a top foreign aid official under President George W. Bush.

Runde noted that much of the reluctance to support the enhanced Middle East involvement that Obama has favored comes from Senate Democrats, as well as some anti-interventionist Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Health care

Obamacare is here to stay, Fusfield said — at least through the 2016 elections.

“Unless the GOP reaches a supermajority of 60, any attempts to repeal Obamacare will not pass the Senate, and even if both chambers will repeal Obamacare, everyone understands the president will veto it,” said Fusfield, who tracks the issue closely in part because B’nai B’rith maintains a network of elderly care homes.

“You may see Republican tweaks,” he added, for instance in increasing the law’s definition of the workweek from 30 to 40 hours, or the removal of the law’s tax on the sale of medical devices.

Immigration

On paper, a wholly Republican Congress should see an advance in the most famously deadlocked issue: how to address the 11 million and counting undocumented migrants in the United States, said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of Bend the Arc, a social advocacy group.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House speaker, has cited differences with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, to explain the House’s failure to act on a bill passed by the Senate in 2013. Having Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the majority seat would do away with that obstruction.

Republicans, while eager to court the Hispanic vote, have resisted outlining a path to citizenship until border security is addressed. Democrats want to fast-track citizenship for undocumented migrants who arrived here as minors.

Don’t bet on a change, though, Susskind said.

“They’re spooked by Cantor,” he said, referring to the precipitous fall this year of the former House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who lost a primary to a Tea Party challenger who said Cantor was soft on immigration — although as majority leader he had actually blocked the Senate bill from advancing.

Melanie Nezer, the Washington director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, agreed that advancing an overhaul was unlikely and outlined a familiar strategy: work the smaller issues, including renewing the Lautenberg Amendment. Originally fashioned to address the Soviet Jewry crisis in the 1980s, the amendment named for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey extends refugee status to those persecuted for their religion.

Another focus would be maintaining funding for refugee resettlement, a HIAS focus in recent years, which Nezer said had bipartisan support in part because of the killing fields in Iraq and Syria.

Confirmations

The single area domestically that would likely mean far-reaching change with a Republican majority in both chambers is in confirmations.

Reid changed the rules last year to allow simple majority confirmations and has been rushing this year to fill posts long stymied since 2011 by the earlier 60-vote rule. The majority leader has made some headway, although Republican senators are still able to delay the process to a degree by placing personal holds on nominees.

A GOP majority could put on hold nominations as high profile as the replacement for Eric Holder, the attorney general who has announced his intention to retire, as well as an array of lower court judges.

Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has made what she calls “judicial emergencies” a centerpiece of its advocacy, has said that a Republican Senate could precipitate a crisis.

“They have to live up to their responsibility to consider and vote,” she said of GOP senators. “It’s serious now and it’s going to be more serious come the new session.”

One nomination of interest to the Jewish community is that of Rabbi David Saperstein, the longtime director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center who has been nominated to serve as the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

France largest source of immigration to Israel so far in 2014


Reaching a 25-year high, immigration to Israel from France has become the largest single source of newcomers to Israel so far this year.

Some 4,566 French immigrants arrived in Israel from January through Sept. 1, surpassing Russia, with 2,632 immigrants, and Ukraine, with 3,252 immigrants. The United States, whose Jewish population is more than 10 times that of France, has sent 2,218 new immigrants to Israel so far this year.

The figures were published on Sept. 1 by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The number of French immigrants in 2014 is the highest on record since 1989 and already has surpassed last year’s record-breaking number of 3,263 French newcomers. In 2004, another banner year for French aliyah, there were 2,948 French immigrants to Israel.

Between 1989 and 2013, an average of 1,943 French immigrants arrived in Israel per year.

Immigration from Ukraine — where government troops are fighting pro-Russian separatists in a conflict that has produced thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of displaced persons — also increased dramatically this year.

The 3,252 immigrants who came to Israel from Ukraine since January constituted a 61-percent increase over the 1,270 Ukrainian immigrants who arrived in Israel during the corresponding months last year.

Officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for organizing Jewish immigration to Israel, said the increase in immigration from France is connected to rising levels of anti-Semitism in France, a stagnant French economy and strong levels of Zionist sentiment among French Jews.

 

In race for Congress, how different are candidates Elan Carr and Ted Lieu?


Democratic State Sen. Ted Lieu and Republican District Attorney Elan Carr may be competing to fill longtime Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman’s seat in November, but in an era in which the two parties rarely work together, the similarities between these two candidates are one of this race’s greatest distinctions.

Ted Lieu

Both men are sons of immigrants (Lieu came with his family to the United States from Taiwan when he was 3; Carr’s mother is from Iraq and his father was born in Bulgaria and moved to Israel). Both have assisted Iraqis while serving in the military: In 1996, Lieu was a JAG captain in the Air Force and, in Guam, helped process thousands of Kurds who were airlifted by the military from Iraq after facing mass murder by Saddam Hussein. In 2003, Carr was an anti-terrorism operative in Iraq, helping secure neighborhoods following Hussein’s ouster. 

Both oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act, the signature Democratic health care act widely known as ObamaCare (although Carr wants to significantly reform it). Both oppose deporting law-abiding foreigners who entered the United States illegally, and both, at least when it comes to foreign policy, sound a lot like, well, each other.

In June, when Carr was asked by the Journal how the Obama administration should respond to ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the terrorist organization that has been closing in on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Carr cautioned against any U.S. military involvement unless the White House commits to destroying the group. In an Aug. 4 interview, Carr held that position.

Lieu’s immediate take on ISIS during a recent interview in Beverly Hills?

“I want to crush them,” he said without hesitation. “ISIS is an incredibly extreme and dangerous organization that uses violence to achieve its goals.” 

But when asked how he would go about doing that, Lieu chuckled, paused and said he supports, for now, President Barack Obama’s current tactic of providing a few hundred military advisers to the Iraqi government:

“If the U.S. is going to get involved in Iraq again, I think it needs to figure out what its objectives are” before launching a major military operation, Lieu said.

And as much as Lieu feels a connection with the Kurds of Iraq — both because of his work with them in 1996 and because of their warm feelings toward America — he still holds out hope for a unified Iraq, one that sees Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds coexisting peacefully, or at least not submerged in civil war.

“This is what Iraq could be,” Lieu said, describing the northeastern part of the country, which is heavily Kurdish and would likely comprise part of any autonomous Kurdish state. “It’s got open-air shopping centers, amusement parks, they’ve got nice hotels.”

On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lieu struck a more conservative tone than that coming out of the White House, calling Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas “absolute” and casting a skeptical eye on international efforts to pressure Israel into a cease fire.

“I don’t see how the U.S. or the international community could impose any sort of agreement [on Israel],” Lieu said. “They should read the charter of Hamas. I don’t think many of them have. It doesn’t just talk about Israel, it talks about killing all Jews.”

Lieu also spoke skeptically of the United Nations and the “international community,” which he said “has no teeth” when it comes to keeping hostile countries or terrorist groups in line.

“Countries and organizations respond primarily to two things,” said Lieu, a graduate of Air War College and a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. “Force or economic sanctions — or the threat of those two things.”

Asked about recent data suggesting that Democratic and Republican voters may, for the first time in decades, have significantly different views on Israel, Lieu said that the gap may be due more to age than political affiliation. The data, pulled from a Pew Research Center poll released on July 28, says that 60 percent of Republicans blame Hamas for the violence, a view shared by only 29 percent of Democrats.

“I do believe that Democrats and Republicans share the same views on Israel,” said Lieu, who supported emergency funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system that has shot down most rockets fired by Hamas that pose threats to Israeli population centers. On Aug. 1, the House of Representatives approved a Senate bill providing $225 million in emergency funds for the Iron Dome. Obama has approved the measure.

Even on immigration, a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans, there is little air between Lieu’s and Carr’s stated views. Lieu supports increased border security but is not confident a fence would efficiently secure the border, and he wants to reunite those living here illegally with their families, whether that means sending them to Latin America or keeping them here.

Carr, in a recent interview with the conservative publication Weekly Standard, said he opposes deporting law-abiding undocumented immigrants when it is the U.S. government that created the problem, a position that puts him at odds with more conservative factions of the Republican-led House.

“Why wouldn’t we embrace them and welcome them when we are the ones who didn’t secure our borders?” Carr asked, clarifying, though, that he does support securing the southern border to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Central and South America.

However, as much as the two might appear similar now, how either would govern in the House could evolve, depending upon which committees the winner might join, as well as the issues that either would prioritize. 

Lieu is an outspoken advocate of alternative forms of energy and views global warming as an existential threat to humanity. Much of his work in the California Legislature has reflected his overriding concern with environmental issues and his belief in the government’s role in growing the economy, creating jobs and helping workers — all core issues for the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.

Carr told the Journal in an Aug. 4 interview that his priorities would include support for Israel, education, public safety issues, and tax and regulatory policies that he said encourage companies to hire workers outside of California and the United States.

On Israel, for example, Carr contrasted what he said is providing a reliable vote on Israel — which Lieu would likely consistently provide — versus assuming a leadership role on pro-Israel legislation, much like former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. 

“What we need now is leaders,” Carr said. “Not simply votes that may be reliable votes on Israel, but leaders on the issue.”

As Lieu noted, though, in 2007 he was a co-sponsor of AB221, which called on state pension funds to divest from companies that do business in Iran's energy and nuclear sectors.

Although the two candidates have not yet held a public debate, a spokesman for the Lieu campaign said that at least one can be expected as Election Day nears. 

The immigration debate: Children at the border


Earlier this month, when I saw the images from Murrieta of anti-immigration protesters blocking a bus of undocumented women and children, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the MS St. Louis, the boat of Jewish refugees that attempted to reach America in 1939.

When I was growing up, my family members told me the story of the St. Louis. They recounted for me how 937 Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany were turned away from every port and were forced to return to Europe, where a quarter of them were eventually murdered under Nazi occupation and in concentration camps. That story, along with other Jewish refugee stories, such as the Kindertransport, has stuck with me. They have informed my understanding of what it means for refugees to desperately seek safe harbor. What it means for refugees to be embraced. And what it means for refugees to be denied.

Today, tens of thousands of undocumented women and unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence and danger — much of which has resulted from the drug wars — and have overwhelmed the Department of Homeland Security holding centers along our southern border. They have been held in warehouses in deplorable conditions, sleeping under foil blankets, without legal representation or family contact. 

How we respond demonstrates something deep about the character of our nation.

The response in Murrieta exposed something else entirely: a vile strain of American xenophobia that is, unfortunately, nothing new. Many Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants in the past century encountered this xenophobia, and our nation’s immigration laws have often reflected this, whether in the exclusion of Asian immigrants in the 19th century or the severe tightening of immigration quotas in 1924. The “golden door” for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has been shut closed as many times as it’s been held open. 

That frequent trope of anti-immigration activists, repeated for the cameras in Murrieta, that “my ancestors came here legally and so should you,” is often inaccurate and entirely irrelevant — today’s immigration laws resemble nothing of those during the great waves of European immigration from the 1830s to the 1910s. 

The circumstances were different, but that’s not the point. It is said that when the MS St. Louis was off the coast of Florida, the captain considered running the boat ashore so the coast guard would be forced to let the Jews disembark into America. Is there anyone among us who doesn’t wish that had happened?

Our Jewish history is full of experiences that lead us to have profound empathy for people who are seeking safety and freedom. Our values inform our responsibility to counter the hateful rhetoric with humanitarian compassion. Right now, in our America, more than 50,000 women and children are pleading for compassion and safety. How will we respond to their call?

Recently, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that he is working with local nonprofits to find shelter for some of the undocumented children in Los Angeles. Legal representation and temporary shelter would be federally provided, but the effort to demonstrate empathy would belong to Angelenos. My hope is that we will rally to show the nation that the mayor is not the only person in Los Angeles who is willing to stand up for these children and for the values that we hold dear. 

While they are in our city, we have an obligation to show them the dignity we would have wanted our own ancestors to be shown. For me, this is not a political question but a moral one. Yes, we absolutely need to fix our broken immigration policies, but today, right now, we can make sure they feel welcomed and respected, and we can speak out on their behalf to our families and to our communities. We understand how they feel, and we know they deserve better.

Serena Oberstein is the Regional Director of Bend the Arc Southern California. She has spent the bulk of her career working on root issues in order to alleviate poverty through government, campaigns, and the non-profit sector. Her work in the Villaraigosa Administration in Los Angeles gave her a unique aperture into the issues facing the city and the people who reside within its boundaries. She received her Master in Public Administration from the NYU Wagner School of Public Service where she specialized in financing urban governments.

From Grizzly Bears to Gaza Rockets: Alaskan olim head for Israel


Rebecca Scoggin lived in a lot of places growing up: Juneau, Nome, Fairbanks, Homer, Anchorage. But except for the two years she lived in Seattle after high school, she never lived outside Alaska.

At least she hadn’t until a few months ago. Inspired by a Birthright trip she took at age 19, Scoggin decided to pick up and move to Tel Aviv.

“It was kind of a random decision. There was no real reason for it,” Scoggin, 23, told JTA in a recent phone interview from Anchorage, where she was back visiting family. “I fell in love with Tel Aviv and sun. It’s become more home to me than any other place.”

Scoggin is not your typical immigrant to Israel, and not just because she hails from the 49th state. Scoggin has no family in the Holy Land, hasn’t had much Judaism in her life and has a Christian father. But something drew her to Israel.

“I’m not religious, I grew up celebrating Christmas my whole life, but I do feel that connection to my land,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my Jewishness or if I just like the heat.”

Scoggin is one of several Jews from Alaska immigrating to Israel this year. Among the others making aliyah are a 51-year-old CT scan-MRI technician who wants to get away from the ice; a 51-year-old expert on refugee resettlement who is relocating with her son and Scottish husband; and a 58-year-old former corrections officer and deputy sheriff from Anchorage.

“It’s not every day that we are privileged to take care of new olim from Alaska,” said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization used by the Israeli government  to handle the logistics of U.S. immigration to Israel. “It’s astounding and inspiring to me that Jews living in a kind of paradise, with a comfortable and luxurious life, are deciding to leave home, work, community and friends to move to the other side of the world — especially these days when Israel is under fire.”

The technician, Donn Ungar, whose aliyah flight left from New York on Monday, says he’s not nervous about going to Israel despite the rocket fire from Gaza.

“It’s crazy over there now, but it doesn’t change my decision at all,” Ungar said. “It’s not a reason not to go there. I know they have wars. I’m going to be a part of Israel and a part of the community. You can’t pick and choose.”

Karen Ferguson, director of the refugee program at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, where she works with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan and Burma, has a similar take. She will be moving to Haifa in August with her 13-year-old son, to be followed in December by her husband, Stewart.

“I don’t think you can pick a time and hope that will be a time of peaceful tranquility in Israel and say that’s when you’re going to move,” Ferguson said. “This is the reality of Israel. We’re going there to immigrate and be part of the country. You have to take the country for all it is — the good and the bad.”

Ferguson’s move will be the latest stop in a lifetime marked, she says, by “a desire for change and adventure.”

After meeting her Scottish, non-Jewish husband in Ohio and marrying in Nova Scotia, Canada, the couple soon moved to the Pacific island nation of Samoa, where their daughter was born. When they moved to Anchorage 17 years ago, they planned to stay just a year or two.

But with good jobs, young kids and a fondness for catching their own wild salmon, they decided to stay put for a while.

Every year the family catches up to 55 pounds of salmon (their legal limit) using dipnet fishing: Stewart affixes a large, circular net to the end of a long pole, then dips it into the ocean where the salmon swim into an inlet. Karen chops off the heads, guts the fish and takes the meat to a facility that turns it into lox and smoked salmon and filets. The family hasn’t had to buy salmon in 15 years, Ferguson says.

But now they’re ready to say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” With their daughter off to college and their son about to start high school, they’re set for a new phase in their lives.

“We’re in this window of opportunity now,” Ferguson said. “We could continue doing what we’re doing or try and do something different. My husband and I decided we really wanted to take on new horizons.”

 

So why Israel?

“I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate it. It’s a place I would love to have lived in and been a part of,” said Ferguson, who has raised her children as Jews, though her husband has not converted.

“There’s just something about Israel that is both dynamic and magnetic. The intellectual and historical experiences when I’m there are very challenging. And for me, I grew up never being around very many Jews. We were a very secular Jewish family. I went to an Episcopalian boarding school. I work for Catholic Social Services. There’s something really appealing for once about being among my own and having the holidays be the Jewish holidays.”

Unlike many immigrants, Ferguson says she’s not necessarily thinking about Israel as a final destination. She will be starting a master’s program in peace and conflict management at Haifa University; her husband will telecommute to his job doing telemedicine for small, rural communities around Alaska.

“We’re going to Israel looking for a connection and a place to be our next home,” she said. “You really can’t predict well whether a place you stay for a while will become your home. Things unfold for you.”

That was how Ungar ended up spending 17 years in Alaska. He decided to move there after falling in love with it while on vacation from Florida, found work quickly and made good friends. But after a brutally cold winter three years ago that never seemed to end, Ungar, who is single, began thinking about an early retirement destination. He wanted someplace simple and inexpensive.

But Israel, where his family unsuccessfully tried living for a few months in 1971 and where Ungar now has a brother and other relatives, kept popping into his head. Ungar went there on a three-week vacation in February and was smitten.

“The energy just felt amazing,” he said. “That’s what brought me to Alaska in the first place — the feeling that this is where I should be at that point in my life. Now I was feeling that for Israel. I’ve learned to listen to that little voice in my head.”

So he contacted aliyah authorities, packed up and got rid of his most prized Alaska possession: a fur bomber jacket. It was the warmest thing he ever owned.

“People say to me, ‘Why are you going?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘I have no idea. It’s just where I’m supposed to be.’”

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 davids@jewishjournal.com.

Israel’s population grows slightly to 8.081 million


The population in Israel rose to 8.081 million — 148,000 more than on the eve of Rosh Hashanah a year ago.

According to data released Monday by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the population grew by 1.8 percent, with 75.1 percent of Israel’s population, or 6.066 million people, listed as Jewish. Arabs made up 20.7 percent of the population. There were no significant changes in either group.

Those listed as others made up 4.2 percent of the population, including Christians and people without religious affiliations.

Last year, 163,000 babies were born and 40,000 people died.

In addition, there were 16,968 new immigrants to Israel in the Jewish year 5773, as well as more than 6,000 Israelis who returned to the country after living abroad.

The most popular names for boys were Itai, Daniel, Ori, Yosef and Noam; for girls they were Noa, Shira, Tamar, Talia and Yael.

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.”