When we heard about the 22 people gunned down at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, by a man who authorities said was connected to a white supremacist manifesto, we couldn’t shake the thought: Had we led some victims there?
At the end of July, we flew to El Paso for Moral Monday at the Borderlands, an interfaith clergy action organized by Repairers of the Breach and supported by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. We gathered to express our disgust with the way our government treats asylum seekers on our southern border. Clergy from all over the country gathered to march. The event culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to enter a detention center to provide pastoral care.
On the plane to El Paso, one of us sat next to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. The agent said that he thought the solution to the crisis on the border was to separate more families and to make detention longer and more miserable as a deterrent. This disheartening encounter set the tone for our trip.
We volunteered at a temporary shelter for immigrants that was their first stop after being released from area detention centers. Immigrants arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. The shelter helps them contact their sponsors, gives them a change of clothing and some supplies, and arranges transportation to the next step in their journey.
I (Jennifer Rueben) was placed in the playroom. There were about 30 children, most of them alone, waiting for their parents to consult with volunteers. The children were dirty, with soiled clothes, matted hair and long fingernails. Most were barefoot and the bottoms of their feet were black. The youngest ones played while older children sat quietly. I spoke no Spanish, but almost immediately, the children had named me “Tia” (Aunt). They squealed it with delight as I decorated their faces with stickers. I had no idea what they had been through or what their futures would hold. All I knew is that these beautiful children understood something that we lose sight of as we grow up in this troubled world: We are all family.
The Hygiene Room
I (Margie Slome) was placed in the hygiene room. After detainees phoned relatives or sponsors, my colleague, Rabbi Kim Geringer, and I handed out one towel per family. They also were entitled to a bar of soap, toothbrushes, a comb, infant formula, four diapers, a razor, feminine hygiene products, shampoo, conditioner, and a few more items. I let the children choose their hair ties and lip balm. A comb, toothpaste … a little kindness, and they were off to lunch. Another busload of immigrants would arrive soon.
On our last day in El Paso, using our discretionary funds, we bought $2,000 in Walmart gift cards to deliver to the shelter. We told the volunteer site manager who gratefully received them, “Please tell the asylum seekers that, on behalf of our congregants, we want to welcome them to our country.”
The Walmart where the immigration and gun crises collided on Aug. 3 is only a four-minute ride from the shelter. We may never know if some of those we met might have decided to go use those gift cards that afternoon, only to be caught in a mass shooting. Welcome to America.
Last year, a white supremacist murdered Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, holding them responsible for immigrants coming into our country. And at the El Paso Walmart, a suspected white supremacist took aim at immigrants directly.
We cannot allow political leaders to turn a blind eye to the dehumanization and demonization of people who, despite this most recent act of terrorism, still will risk death to seek a better life here, fleeing greater danger in their homelands. The baseless hatred that is the common denominator between the abuse of immigrants and mass shootings is only strengthened by our silence. We must not stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. The time is now for all of us, as Jews and as people of conscience, to act.
Rabbi Margie Slome is the rabbi of West End Temple in Neponsit, N.Y. Cantor Jennifer Rueben is the cantor of Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, Va.