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.
February 12, 2014

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.”

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