February 21, 2020

L.A. Jews Fight for Justice

March 9 started out like a normal day for Maria and Gabriela Gomez.* The 17- and 16-year-old high school students from a small town near Los Angeles were getting ready for school. Only two more days until the dreaded SATs.

Their father, Juan, dropped them off at school and then headed to the San Bernardino office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to see if he qualified for citizenship or permanent residency. ICE agents informed him that he couldn’t adjust his status and deported him immediately.

“When we came out of school and my mom picked us up, she was crying and gave us the news,” Maria said.

Juan had been sent back to Mexico after crossing the border illegally almost 30 years ago. “We packed some clothes for a week and stayed at a family member’s house for three days,” Maria recalled.

They then removed all of their possessions from the home where they were living and returned the keys. They couldn’t remain there anymore for fear their mother, Rosa, also would be deported. Rosa came to the United States on a tourist visa that expired several years ago. Both of her daughters are American citizens. The three family members sought help from their church a couple of months later.

A priest there referred them to LA Voice, a multifaith community organization with 55 member congregations across L.A. County representing about 55,000 families. Seven of those temples, churches and mosques have declared themselves sanctuary congregations, according to Mario Fuentes, lead organizer with LA Voice.

L.A.’s Leo Baeck Temple on the Westside of Los Angeles is one of them. Robyn Samuels, chair of the temple’s sanctuary task force, met with the Gomez family and came back deeply moved.

“This family was really traumatized,” she said. Members decided to support them until they got back on their feet.

Rosa, who served on the charity committee of her church and hesitated to accept help, was very clear about what she wanted. “She needed a year of support so that she could let her daughters finish high school and let them fulfill their dream of going to college,” Samuels said.

First, the temple raised funds among the membership. Then, it reached out to two partners, IKAR and Temple Israel of Hollywood, which, together with a couple of churches, raised the roughly $20,000 needed to cover the rent for the family’s modest, two-bedroom home and other necessities.

Rosa, who had her own small business making and selling crafts before her husband of 19 years was deported, cleans houses to provide for her daughters. Maria said they were surprised at the outpouring of support from members of Leo Baeck.

“That people reach out who are complete strangers and say, ‘We want to help you,’ that was shocking to me,” said the now 18-year-old.

Over the past year, a deep bond has formed between the Gomez family and the temple family. Rosa led a tamale-making workshop and her daughters have spoken to the congregation about their journey. They also celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas together and went ice skating downtown.

“To actually have the personal experience of feeling connected and obligated to individuals has been a really powerful lesson and opportunity,” Samuels said.

In addition to helping the Gomez family directly, Samuels, together with Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, Assistant Rabbi Benjamin Ross and several congregants took part in an immigration support rally in Santa Clarita at Republican Congressman Steve Knight’s field office on March 6. Attendees called on Knight to vote for a clean, independent Dream Act not tied to a border wall or more money for ICE.

At a press conference shortly before the rally, Chasen said, “I am here because, had America locked its doors to my ancestors in their time of need, they would have perished in Europe and I would never have been.”

The rally was organized by activist groups, including many local Jewish organizations that have been at the forefront of immigration justice reform, such as IKAR, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Clergy & Laity for Economic Justice (CLUE) and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“What we see in this county of Los Angeles is that there is one congressperson who is consistently voting against the well-being of immigrants and vulnerable communities,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE.

Organizers estimate that 3,000 so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, reside in Knight’s 25th Congressional District. Klein’s organization hired one of them right after she graduated from UC Irvine.

Her mother brought her to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico. “We wanted to hire her because she is gung-ho about understanding vulnerabilities and recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of all people,” Klein said.

“We see our story in the story of today’s immigrants,” said Brooke Wirtschafter, director of community organizing at IKAR.

“That people reach out who are complete strangers and say, ‘We want to help you,’ that was shocking to me.” — Maria Gomez

This most recent demonstration of solidarity between the Jewish community and undocumented immigrants was not the first or the most significant of its kind. Last year, during Passover, Los Angeles protesters blocked the entrance to L.A.’s Metropolitan Detention Center. More than 30 protesters were arrested, among them several rabbis, including Aryeh Cohen, part-time rabbi in residence at Bend the Arc. His grandparents emigrated at the end of World War I from Galicia, where his grandfather was a prisoner of war.

Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple spoke at the pre-rally press conference.

“This is personal to me because I want the city that I live in to be a just city and the country that I live in to be a just country,” Cohen said.

Rallies in support of Dreamers and undocumented immigrants have continued throughout the country since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, and Jewish organizations have continued to make their voices heard.

Jewish protesters congregated at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in January of this year. Organizers handed over a petition signed by 5,000 people, which stated in part:

“We’ve seen this before. We stand with our immigrant neighbors on the side of justice, not oppression, of liberation, not deportation.”

As Jewish organizations continue to fight the issue on a macro level, back in Los Angeles, the Gomez family’s dreams stay afloat thanks to the help of these local Jewish groups.

Maria and Gabriela have taken their SATs and applied to several colleges. One of Leo Baeck’s members helped them with their essays and another took them on college tours. To date, Maria has received two acceptance letters and no rejections. Her dream schools are UCLA or Pitzer College. She wants to major in math or biology. Gabriela wants to become a pediatrician.

Meanwhile, their father, Juan, is in Mexico, working two jobs to make ends meet. He calls at least five times a week to check in with his girls.

* The Gomez family names are pseudonyms.

Jessica Donath is a freelance journalist who lives in Pasadena.