Several area rabbis were among more than 30 protesters arrested April 13 in downtown Los Angeles for an act of civil disobedience to call attention to the treatment of undocumented immigrants.
The group was taken away after blocking a driveway to the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) Los Angeles, booked at Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) headquarters and released by mid-afternoon.
Bend the Arc Rabbi-in-Residence Aryeh Cohen said the act of civil disobedience demonstrated a refusal to accept Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) treatment of undocumented immigrants.
“What it says to ICE, the institution, is that we are intending to put our bodies in between them and … deportations and detentions of people who have been in this country for a long time,” Cohen said in a phone interview. “I think what it said to LAPD is our fight is not with them but with ICE.”
The protest, which began around 10 a.m. several blocks away, brought together Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders and community members who chanted, “Exodus from detention!” as they marched toward the Detention Center, from where vans leave to round up immigrants. The center, itself, is a federal jail downtown that holds individuals for immigration-related crimes, among other offenses.
Participants in the protest, which came on the third day of Passover, drew parallells between the Israelites’ Exodus story from bondage to liberation and the plight of undocumented immigrants who live in fear of being detained.
“I’m standing with my brothers and sisters in faith … on behalf of the undocumented and the refugee and immigrant communities that are being targeted now. Especially now during Passover, it is time we remember our own liberation,” Rabbi Sarah Bassin, associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, told the Journal, as she was locking arms with Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg, before their arrest.
Approximately 200 members of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and other faith-based social organizations turned out.
Among those arrested were Bassin, Goldberg, Cohen; Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus at Hillel at UCLA; and Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC.
Goldberg said the purpose of blocking the entrance to the detention center was to prevent ICE vehicles from doing roundups.
“We’re making sure that ICE vans don’t have the ability to leave and round people up and deport them during this week of Passover,” she said.
Locking arms with Shakeel Syed, executive director at Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, Seidler-Feller said lessons gleaned from Passover obligate him to stand up for undocumented immigrants.
“At Passover we understand we are all strangers and citizens of the world together,” he said.
Syed, who is Muslim, echoed the importance of interfaith unity in the face of injustice.
“Today, I am a full human being standing in solidarity with all my Jewish brothers and sisters,” he said.
Police charged those arrested with willfully disobeying a police officer.
Bassin said she was released shortly after her arrest. The police treated her professionally, she said, adding that the charge is equivalent to a traffic violation.
The event kicked off with people congregating in the historic La Placita Church near Olvera Street, where Cohen expressed his frustration with the Donald Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants.
“We are here to say this as loud as we can,” Cohen said, addressing packed pews inside the church. “We will not abide by this anymore.”
As they proceeded, protestors stopped at the Federal Building, which conducts immigration processing, at 300 N. Los Angeles St., and chanted, “Not one more deportation!” Officials from the Department of Homeland Security stood at the entrance to the building.
Two officers, who declined to be identified, said they did not know beforehand the interfaith group would be showing up.
“Passover is the ultimate Jewish story of liberation,” David Bocarsly, a 26-year-old USC graduate student in public policy, said as the group marched on to the MDC. “The reason we retell is we don’t forget. This is a holiday not just for Jews but for all people.
“Passover is the story of God’s social justice work,” Bocarsly added. He, too, was arrested.
The group arrived outside the detention center just after 11 a.m. and formed a circle around a seder table set up in the middle of the closed-down street. Matzo, grape juice and bitter herbs sat on the table.
Holding up a piece of broken matzo, Seidler-Feller said it symbolized families broken apart by the country’s immigration policy.
“This is a broken matzo,” he said. “It’s broken families, broken hearts, broken people.”
Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE, held up bitter herbs “to call out the bitterness of ICE sweeps, of fathers detained in front of their children, of the bitterness of imprisonment for no crime,” he said.
Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, held up a cup of grape juice.
“We set aside a cup for Elijah, and open the door to announce the coming of redemption,” Geller said. “We fill this cup from our own cups to remind us that bringing to redemption to our world is up to us all.” She was not arrested.
Rabbi Danny Mehlman, spiritual leader of Ner Tamid of Downey and a chaplain at North Kern State Prison, stood in the group watching the seder. He was born in Argentina and lived in Israel for 13 years before coming to the United States with the American-born wife he’d recently married. He said when he became a citizen, the pathway to citizenship was much easier. This was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he acknowledged, but he said he wanted to see a return to a more sensible naturalization process for the undocumented.
“There hasn’t been a change in immigration law, which is necessary,” he said, wearing a tie that was decorated like a matzo, “the tie of affliction,” said Mehlman, who did not partake in any civil disobedience because of his role as a prison chaplain.
Mehlman said he hoped the the event raised awareness about the challenges facing the undocumented community.
“One of the points of the seder is to increase awareness,” he said. “Indifference is the enemy of awareness, of action, and that’s what’s needed.”