The Torah could not be clearer on the subject of immigrants. No less than 36 times does it direct us to welcome the stranger in our midst. The commandment, which is a driving force in the Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt, is also crucial to the New Sanctuary Movement—a movement intent on not only welcoming the stranger, but protecting her as well. The call is particularly resonant during the Passover season as we remember how our ancestors suffered as strangers in a strange land.
My curiosity about Jewish participation in Boston’s New Sanctuary Movement piqued when I saw a recent picture in The Boston Globe Magazine of Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain. Reinstein was photographed with two ministers whose churches were housing guests in sanctuary. While it was apparent to me that my Jewish tradition mandated involvement in the New Sanctuary Movement, I was curious what that looked like in Boston.
In a recent conversation with JewishBoston, Reinstein explained that when sanctuary is provided to someone, “there is a coalition, or cluster of congregations, that is able to provide physical space for sanctuary, and other communities in the cluster provide support for the effort. One congregation would have a hard time carrying the effort alone. My congregation is one of several that are part of the collective effort.”
The effort is intensive, given the fact that a guest cannot be left alone in a church or synagogue building. Two people are assigned to round-the-clock shifts. According to Reinstein, other Jewish communities in the cluster include Moishe Kavod House Boston and Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury.
Rachel Berkowitz resides in Moishe Kavod House and is one of the volunteers who keeps sanctuary guests company. “It’s important to me as a Jew to act out Jewish values, and there was a need to do that in my community,” she said. She described her volunteering as an “act of faith” that resonates strongly with her personal story. Berkowitz’s grandparents were immigrants who sought safety in America. “The Torah calls on us to remember we were strangers,” she said. “I feel called upon as a Jew to support this family in their time of need.”
Rina Wolok is another volunteer who spends time with the guests in sanctuary. Wolok, a member of Nehar Shalom, said she joined the synagogue for its commitment to social justice. In a recent conversation with JewishBoston, she pointed out that, “In Pirke Avot—Ethics of Our Fathers—it says the study of Torah is not the main goal; rather practicing what the Torah says is more important. Nehar Shalom lives by those words. We’re what the prophets would have done by caring for a family in danger.”
While the New Sanctuary Movement draws on biblical or religious antecedents, its modern roots go back several decades. In the 1980s, a surge of refugees from Latin America sought asylum in the United States from the violence in their home countries. According to T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, clergy and congregations of various faiths organized to establish more than 500 congregations that became public sanctuaries. The movement faded into the background in the 1990s, but reemerged in 2007 as the New Sanctuary Movement. Under the Obama administration, the movement was involved in passing legislation such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In 2014, for the first time in more than three decades, undocumented immigrants sought public sanctuary after excessive and illegal policing in Arizona under the direction of sheriff Joe Arpaio.
T’ruah reported that in light of President Trump’s directives to cancel protections and increase deportations, the New Sanctuary Movement has “stepped up to the plate to protect immigrants and their families, counter xenophobia and false messaging, and advance the cause of a multicultural America. As of June 2017, over 800 faith communities have declared themselves part of the New Sanctuary Movement.”
In this latest incarnation, the New Sanctuary Movement has adapted to help a new wave of undocumented immigrants. In the 1980s, most undocumented immigrants arrived in the United States with little or no resources. In a number of cases their deportations meant certain death if they were to return to their country of origin. Contrast that scenario to today’s undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been here for years under Temporary Protective Status (TPS) or were brought here illegally as young children. They have earned degrees, bought homes and have immediate family who are United States citizens.
For Reinstein, the situation is beyond politics. “It’s about basic human decency and how we as citizens respond to the needs of others,” he said. “Each community draws on its own traditions to teach love and care for others.” To help those in sanctuary, he and his congregants connect to related Jewish learning. “We have a program called the Social Justice Beit Midrash, where we engage in traditional Jewish studies, but the texts we focus on are issues of concern to the world,” he said. “We work concertedly with a traditionally important tension between learning and doing.”
Reinstein said one of the most important sources he draws on in his studying and teaching related to sanctuary is from the Book of Exodus, chapter 23, verse 9. During the days leading up to Passover, we would do well to remember these words: “And you shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”